Thursday, December 6, 2007

The True Story of the First Pumpkin Beer!


The True Story of the First Pumpkin Beer!

By Peter LaFrance

Over the last twenty years or so the appearance of pumpkin beer, or pumpkin ale, has been so seasonally successful that this year the folks at BeerAdvocate chart over 60 nationally distributed Pumpkin brews. Who were these people brewing these beers? Why did they brew such a thing? Who was the first one to attempt such a feat?

                    The fact is that the pumpkin is an indigenous fruit to the North American continent. Native Americans from sea to sea found it useful to cultivate and consume the fruit in all of its various forms. The sugar content of the pumpkin caught the attention of George Washington. Being intrigued, frugal and politically correct (not buying English malt) he kept notes on the effect of pumpkin as a sugar/malt substitute in his home-brewed beer.

These notes came to the attention of a brewer by the name of William (“Buffalo Bill”) Owens as he researched colonial brewing practices. His garden produced a pumpkin and his notes rendered a “recipe” for pumpkin ale… I’ll let him tell the story.

Bill Owens: “It was in 1985 or 86, I was researching old-fashioned recipes brewing recipes and came across a book of recipes used by our colonial fathers, including George Washington. George Washington used gourds, and pumpkins, in his mash because of the starches they had.”

            “So I decided to do pumpkin ale. I’m a gardener, so I sent away to Atlantic Seed Company; that’s where you go to get those giant pumpkin seeds when you want to grow the 500 pounders. So I grew my pumpkin. Somewhere I have a movie of it, putting it on a little wagon and hauling it down to the brewery.” 

The Pumpkin that started it all…

“There I cut it up on the day before brew day, popped it in the oven and baked it to get the starches to start to convert. On brewing day I popped it in the oven a second time to warm it up again. When I got ready to mash, I chopped up into the chunks, about 3″ x 3″ square chunks. Then I tossed them into the mash and mashed it in with the grains. I sparged around 170° and made my regular Amber ale. It was a standard mash boil but I didn’t use too much hops because I didn’t want the hops to take over. Then I fermented it, carbonated and tasted it. There was no “punkin” in the flavor!”

            “Suddenly it dawned on me that the taste was one of America’s classic taste is pumpkin pie and when you pick up a can of pumpkin pie there it is on the label.  It tells you that it has ginger and cloves and all those other spices and it. So I walked into the supermarket and found a can of what was called pumpkin pie spices. I bought a whole can of pumpkin pie spices and went back to the brewery, put it in a coffee maker and percolated it, ending up with 2 quarts of what I called “pumpkin pie juice”. This is what I was going to do to “dose” the beer with.”

            “So, my next brew I went through the same routine as my usual ale, but light on the hops. When I finished the fermentation and the yeast had settled out, because I didn’t want to put in with the yeast, I pumped it into the bright-beer tanks and just prior to carbonation I poured the “Pumpkin pie juice” in. When I served it, it was absolutely beautiful. The nose and mouth feel was perfectly balanced, perfectly.” Bill, I think it’s interesting that pumpkin ale is huge and the original “Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale” didn’t have any pumpkin in it.

Bill Owens: “There’s no way the pumpkin can add any flavor to a beer in the process. The starches in the sugars are just there and they make alcohol and that’s the end of that. That’s the end of the flavor profile.  People can talk about adding all kinds of pumpkin to their beers but they’re just jerking you around. The worst thing that you can do is put it in the boil, because then you would break down all of the starches and that crap would just go right into the heat exchanger and clog the heat exchanger. And then it would cause bacterial infections in the heat exchanger and it would be a major hassle. Then it could get into the fermentation vessels, and contaminate your yeast.”

            “You can’t really use pumpkin all by its self and make a beer or ale because it doesn’t give you any flavor. You might as well chew on the bark of a tree. There is no flavor in the pumpkin.  There’s no way you could get any of the flavors in the mashing or fermenting. Any flavoring has to be added after the fermentation.”

And that is the story of the first pumpkin beer.

Posted by Peter LaFrance in 16:38:48 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Odd Notion ’07


A Taste of…
Odd Notion ’07

Magic Hat Brewing Company,

South Burlington, VT (USA)



Preface: As soon as in this beer what seems to be the aroma of spices were in the air.  It was ported approximately 50°F in the bottle was well taken care of.  (Post tasting research revealed to me that what I thought were spices is actually the fact that they used wheat in brewing is beer.)

Appearance: This is a bright red/copper red colored beer with a quickly dissipating head of not terribly finely knit bubbles.

Aroma: If you have ever brewed beer at home.  You would immediately recognize the aroma of this beer. The initial aroma is malt syrup/rich with an undercurrent of a combination of spice (wheat).  The spice is not along the lines of pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves).  There seems to be some nutmeg in the nose, which is not echoed in the first flavor sensation.

Mouth feel: This brew starts out a lot lighter bodied, and then picks up a bit of density, whether this is due to alcohol content.  I am not sure.

Flavor: There is a very strong first impression of a metallic flavor that softens only slightly to an identifiable hop spike of bitterness that is overpowered by an aluminum metallic flavor that has a brief but fruitless fight with the hops.

Finish: The finish to this brew is warm and metallic as well. The notations on the bottle are curious.  It says that it is three-quarter pint of beer 7.5% alcohol by volume.  Both of these notations are a bit unusual. First of all, it’s unusual to call a 12 ounce bottle three quarters of a pint of beer. I was surprised by the alcohol content of 7.5%.  This beer seemed a lot warmer.  With a relatively high alcohol beer you expect a thicker body because of the use of more malt.  Whatever hops there are in here seem to be a bit more powerful at the finish in at the beginning, resonating in the nasal passages, and accompany that thin metallic flavor in a palate cleansing finish.

Comments: It is just on 1030 hrs here in Brooklyn USA.  My last cup of coffee was two hours ago.  I note this because in the past, at the same time and under the same circumstances, I have had the chance to taste some very interesting and flavorful beers.  However, this one I’m not quite sure what to make of.  In short, I will agree that this beer is quite aptly named “Odd Notion”.

Magic Hat Brewing Company:

What others Say:




Peter LaFrance
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Posted by Peter LaFrance in 16:11:14 | Permalink | Comments Off

Friday, October 26, 2007

Holiday Beers – What are they and why are they here?


As the end of the year rolls around, holiday beers roll out. This is an interesting niche specie of beer because it ranges all the way from very high alcohol, high hopped products to things that taste more like pumpkin pie and in some cases, like candy cane. Where did these beers come from? Why are they here?

The granddaddy of them all must be the Anchor brewery “Our Special Ale.”  Legend has it the very first “Our Special Ale” was actually the bridal ale brewed by Fritz Maytag for his wedding.  I have fond memories of anxiously anticipating the arrival of kegs of this product at a place called
CCC in Manhattan in the winter of 1980. 

What were being called microbrews were just beginning to take root in
Colorado and California .  However, the Europeans decided that this was a good time to develop the North American market and did so with a passion.  Almost all of these beers were consistently copper colored relatively highly hopped and certainly highly priced.  The majority of the market in the United States remained golden colored mass-produced beer.

In major urban areas people with disposable income were able to support the beer importers with an almost insatiable thirst for the unusual. Naturally, there was a fascination with high alcohol beers. At the time the Swiss beer Samichlaus was the highest alcohol beer produced, and was also produced during the Christmas season.  This made it a “Christmas Beer” and it was marketed as such. 

In the part of the world where beer is considered part of daily life, as the weather gets colder the beers get stronger. Winters in a climate that produces four to six months of snow a year call for hearty appetites, and hefty beers. The cuisines of traditional beer strongholds in
Germany , France and the United Kingdom offer a seemingly unlimited list of hearty stews, braised meats and roasted birds.  These dishes all demand beers that can stand up to them. Once the Europeans discovered that they could export these higher alcohol beers to the North America and call them “Holiday Beers”, the race was on.

With an understandable desire to emulate the European Brewers, the American microbrewers also began turning out relatively high alcohol beers for the winter seasons.  To the delight of marketing departments everywhere, seasonal beers have become part of the beer culture of
North America . To the delight of Brewers, the beer market of North America seems to have no distinction when it comes to the type of beer they drink during a season.  It is not unusual, ring the dog days of summer, to see people enjoying a pint of double Bock.  Likewise, on the coldest day in winter, wheat beers are called for.  Nevertheless, brewers are glad to persevere and present each season with a certain style of beer.

And so, in the end, what is a holiday beer?  The answer to that question is that a holiday beer is a beer that a brewer produces to show off the best attributes of his brewery and of his recipe in the winter season.

In the end,it is the natural progression of beer styles from the cycle of Lite.


Peter LaFrance
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Posted by Peter LaFrance in 16:19:31 | Permalink | Comments Off