Pumpkin beer, if you must

As a society it seems we are in a bit of a pumpkin craze. Pumpkins used to be for carving and the occasional pumpkin pie. Now in the fall pumpkin is everywhere. Pumpkin muffins, pumpkin spiced coffee, pumpkin lattes, and of course pumpkin beer.

In the craft beer world the proliferation of pumpkin beer is over the top. I know one Beverly beer and wine shop is purposely reducing their selection of pumpkin beer so as to not waste valuable shelf space on a bunch of pumpkin beers that all taste the same. There are only a couple pumpkin beers that stand out above the pack for me. Shipyard’s Smashed Pumpkin is so vastly superior to the ubiquitous Pumpkinhead I have no desire to ever have the latter again. The same applies to another of my favorites, Harpoon’s Imperial Pumpkin as it relates to the UFO Pumpkin. Pumpkin aficionados swear by Pumking, according to my notes and recollections I was lukewarm at best.

Last year I only had one Pumpkinhead. I also went to Bogie’s for their pumpkin beer tasting. The beers were very good, but by the time it was over I just assume turn into a pumpkin than drink pumpkin anything again any time soon. As a child I was a fussy eater and wouldn’t touch any pumpkin food items. As an adult I have thankfully expanded my pallet, but I am at best a pumpkin agnostic. The only reason I brewed pumpkin beer in the past is because my girlfriend is a pumpkin lover who could eat a pumpkin muffin 12 months out of the year. She insisted we brew a pumpkin beer.

If you have cooked with fresh pumpkin you are probably aware cooking with fresh pumpkin sucks. Brewing with fresh pumpkin might even be worse. The difference in taste between fresh and the canned pumpkin most commercial brewers use is significant enough that it is worth the effort. If you must use canned pumpkin be sure that it is free of preservatives. The last thing you want is a preservative in the pumpkin to kill our yeastie friends off during fermentation.

Here is the easiest way for a beginner and/or an extract brewer to get the fresh pumpkin taste:

  • buy a baking pumpkin and not a big, hollow carving pumpkin
  • carve up the pumpkin in half or in small wedges
  • remove all the innards and seeds
  • roast the pumpkin at 350F in a pool of water in a baking dish
  • be sure to roast until the pumpkin appears to be caramelized, approximately 30 minutes
  • steep the pumpkin with your specialty grains to extract the flavor and color
  • brew the rest of the batch as you would any other batch

There are several Pumpkin Ale kits available. Northern Brewer’s Smashing Pumpkin has excellent reviews. Most of these kits do not come with pumpkin, just pumpkin spices. In that case you can use the above steps to add real pumpkin flavor. If you are coming up with your own recipe you want to start with a lightly hopped base style, with little or no late hop additions, and a clean fermenting yeast strain. It is critical that you use your spices judiciously. I actually prefer ground spices because they are easier to portion out. Last year I threw in a cinnamon stick at the end of the boil, my starting gravity was a lot lower than I had planned, and the finished beer wasn’t malty enough to balance the cinnamon.

This is the easiest way to brew a pumpkin beer. For this year, I am actually doing a slightly different process. My ingredients are already ordered. I am waiting for the pumpkin harvest. I’ll be sure to share all the details in a future brew day post.

Carving pumpkins work better to serve out of than as an ingredient.

Carving pumpkins work better to serve out of than as an ingredient.

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