There are very few genuinely American beer styles. The Pilsner, for example, is the style the most popular beers in the world (by sales) are modeled after, but Budweiser, Miller and Coors owe their inspiration, as far removed as they might be from modern examples, to the lagers of Bohemia (Czech Republic) and Germany. Prohibition largely killed off any innovation in the American brewing industry, at least until the craft beer revolution of the 1980s. Tired of bland, pale, fizzy beers with little character, small batch brewers began experimenting independently and even started to resurrect obscure ale and lager styles that were all but extinct for more than 50 years.
Craft breweries like San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company revived their all-American “steam” beer, and beers such as Genesee Cream Ale kept the ale-brewer’s answer to the light, pale lager alive. Nothing, however, could be more authentically American than a beer originally brewed during the time of our nation’s founding, and, possibly by George Washington himself. This is what Bill Owens thought anyway, and his Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale brewed at his brewpub in Hayward, Calif., in 1985 is credited with being the first pumpkin ale since Washington’s time. It is believed that Washington, and other 18th century American brewers, found it difficult to acquire the high quality malts and hops needed to make the kind of beer found across the pond, due to high taxation on exported goods, so they improvised. Early American brewers used all manner of fermentables and bittering agents to make beer, including corn, molasses and, yes, even squash.
While these early American beers had little, if anything, to do with modern examples of the style, they were certainly the inspiration for a trend that has only grown in popularity since Bill Owens’ ’80s-era idea. Pumpkin meat itself is rather bland, so the popularity of pumpkin beer likely lies in the spices generally associated with pumpkin and, more specifically, pumpkin pie. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg added to a nice, malty beer call to mind the sweet, spicy and festive nature of the harvest and holiday season. This fact is not lost on American craft breweries, and they almost always schedule the release of these seasonal beers to coincide with the fall and winter months, and just as they arrive, they’re gone again for another year. Each year, anticipation grows more and more for the most popular and highly rated pumpkin ales, and finding them on retailer’s shelves and coolers can sometimes be difficult.
Fortunately, more than a few of the most sought-after pumpkin ales produced by American craft brewers can be found in Southern Illinois stores, but there are several of the most notable that don’t make it into this market because of the lack of local distribution. Delaware’s Dogfish Head, for instance, makes a very popular beer called Punkin Ale, but if you live in Southern Illinois, you’ll have to drive to Paducah or further to find it. Arguably, the most anticipated pumpkin ale of them all is brewed by Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, N.Y. Simply known as Pumking, this “pumpkin pie in a bottle” is offered only in 22-ounce bomber bottles and weighs in at 8.6 percent ABV. You can find it locally, but be warned. It goes fast.
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Regional breweries seem to be going for the gourd, as well, and Missouri’s Schlafly (The Saint Louis Brewing Company) and O’Fallon Breweries both make a nice, spicy version of this festive ale. This year, our lone local production brewery, Big Muddy Brewing, in Murphysboro has joined in on the action and spiced things up with Pumpkin Smasher, which is available on draft and in 22-ounce bottles throughout the region and the state for that matter.
Once you’ve found your pick of the pumpkin ales out this season, why not try pairing one up with an array of holiday fare like butternut squash soup, turkey and dressing or even mincemeat pie. The holiday spices complement many of the seasonal favorites quite well, but the real fun is in opening up a bottle, decanting into a nice glass (no drinking from the bottle, please!) and taking in the aromas and flavors of the holidays all brewed up in one convenient, if fleeting, package. Pumpkin ales are an American original through and through. Toast to one with friends this year and celebrate American ingenuity!
SHAWN CONNELLY is best known for authoring ‘Style Studies’ – a regular feature on world beer styles in the nationally-distributed Beer Connoisseur Magazine. Shawn is also a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and event host, who has introduced countless Southern Illinoisans to better beer over the last several years. Shawn is also an award-winning home brewer. You can follow Shawn on his blog at www.beerphilosopher.com.