Pumpkin beers. One of Autumn’s finest offerings. It seems like the older I get, the less I care how early these seasonal suds return. In fact, as soon as I saw that Shipyard Pumpkinhead was back (in first week of August) I grabbed Chris by the scruff of his neck and dragged him to our local watering hole to get the earliest taste of Fall that I possibly could.
Of course, there’s always going to be naysayers. “It’s too early!” they cry. “It’s still Summer!” they whine. Folks, let me tell you something – I don’t give a shit. Nothing makes sense in 2020, so as far as I’m concerned, the rulebook is already way out the window. I’d have slugged a Shipyard Pumpkinhead in mid-June while floating in my in-laws’ pool if I had one. Sue me.
But is there really such a thing as “too early” for pumpkin beers? Should I really have to go on trial and explain myself every time I crack open a pumpkin spice-scented cold one while it’s still 97 degrees out? Let’s take a deep dive into the origins of pumpkin ales, and you can judge for yourself.
Pumpkin Spice: The First Avenger
According to a story from CNBC, the “Pumpkin Spice” flavor is a blend of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, which was created in 1934 by the McCormick spice company. All four spices are essential to making Pumpkin Pie, and McCormick created the blend for folks who didn’t feel like buying four separate spices when whipping one up.
In the early 2000s, Starbucks debuted their Pumpkin Spice Latte, which brought the blend of spices back to the forefront of peoples’ minds and palates. Skip ahead another two decades – and now a study shows that almost 200 products include a “pumpkin-spice tax”, meaning they have a pumpkin-flavored version that costs slightly more.
Naturally, seeing that customers will pay a premium to get their pumpkin fix – brands are tripping all over themselves left and right to make these seasonal flavors available as early as possible to continue raking in those early holiday bonuses.
While this seasonal marketing tactic has grown wildly out of control, the origins of pumpkin ale in and of itself is a story that stretches way further back than the early days of American marketing…
Pumpkin Ales: The Great American Art
Would you believe me if I told you that pumpkin ales predate even the pilgrims themselves? That’s right folks. Pumpkin beers aren’t as American as apple pie – they’re more American.
This blog from Brew Studs claims that prior to arriving in the Americas – Europeans had no idea what a pumpkin was. When the noble orange squash was introduced to them by the Native Americans, the Europeans realized it was surprisingly durable in the harsh Winter months. This came at just the right time, as the Pilgrims had no barley malt for which to ferment their beer with. Enter the heroic pumpkin, whose magical inner rind provided an oasis of sugar for which to ferment and brew the Pilgrims’ beer. Thus, the pumpkin ale was born.
A few centuries later in 1801, per Serious Eats, Samuel Stearns’ The American herbal; or, Materia medica named pumpkin beer as somewhat of a health tonic, stating that “Different kinds of beer are often prepared according to the prescriptions of the physicians, all of which, as well as pumpkin and bran beer, partake of the virtues of the ingredients put into such liquors”. There you have it folks, pumpkin beers are good for you!
An Elegant Beverage, For A More Civilized Age
While in the 19th century pumpkin-related things were relegated to the back-burner, and more quality malts became commonplace, pumpkin still remained as a beer ingredient through the 1840s as a flavoring agent, and never fully went away.
Fast forward to 1985, a man named “Buffalo Bill” Owens was credited with brewing the first ever modern pumpkin beer. He had been reading about George Washington’s brewing habits, and how he brewed pumpkin beer, so he decided to take a crack at it. Of course, a mixture of hot water, grains, mashed up pumpkin, and simple sugars kinda tasted like shit – so Mr. Owens went down to his local supermarket and resorted to – you guessed it – Pumpkin Spice.
To solve the problem, Owens walked over to his local market, bought a can of pumpkin pie spices, percolated it so he had a quart of pumpkin-flavored water, which he added that to the beer and then carbonated and bottled it.
“I was very proud of my secret ingredient, which came out of a can from the supermarket,” says Owens.PUMPKIN POWER: THE RISE AND REIGN OF PUMPKIN BEER, (allaboutbeer.com)
The Choice Is Yours
So there you have it folks. From the arrival of the pilgrims, to early-century doctors prescribing pumpkin beer to patients, to McCormick inventing “Pumpkin Spice” as we know it, to Buffalo Bill relying on that very same spice to make his Pilgrim-inspired beer recipe actually palatable – it’s clear that the history of Pumpkin Ales is woven tightly into the fabric of American invention.
Pumpkin ales made it possible for the Pilgrims to keep brewing beer, were prescribed by doctors as a miracle health tonic, and in this humble journalist’s opinion – should never go out of style. So crack open a cold pumpkin-flavored beer as early as you want, fellow Patriot. For were it not for that noble orange gourd, beer as we know it might’ve never existed.
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