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Crafting the perfect pumpkin beer: Brewers describe the artform

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Posted at 1:08 PM, Sep 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-12 15:08:08-04

Years ago, if a man uncapped a pumpkin-flavored beer at a Sunday NFL party, it would have likely resulted in endless insults aimed at his masculinity. In 2016, the guy still tipping back Bud Light is fodder.

The popularity of craft beers continues to climb — sales were up 12.8 percent to $22.3 billion in 2015 — and for many small breweries, pumpkin ales are their bread and butter at this time of year.

Cigar City Brewing, based in Tampa, Florida, employs about 60 people and counts its pumpkin-infused Good Gourd as a top seller.

“It’s fall in your mouth, pretty much,” said Wayne Wambles, head brewmaster at Cigar City. “It creates a sensory memory.”

But how do they do it?

“We use caramelized pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices,” Wambles said. “Some brewers only use pumpkin. And some make a beer, then add pumpkin pie spices but no real pumpkin.” Cigar City hung out its shingle in 2009 but Wambles said he’s been crafting the recipe for Good Gourd since 1994, when he was homebrewing in his garage.

“I’ve always been intrigued by pumpkin beers,” he said, remembering with clarity the first time he had one in 1993. “It was a Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale.” That California-based brew credits itself as America’s original pumpkin ale, first bottled in 1985. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery isn’t alone in considering itself ahead of the pack in this particular race, though.

“We developed ours before the ‘pumpkin craze’ began,” said Nathan Arnone, spokesman for Southern Tier Brewing Company. Based in Lakewood, New York, Southern Tier’s seasonal batch Pumking has been available since 2007.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a brewer that doesn’t include a pumpkin ale among its lineup, and for good reason. Statistics show online searches for “pumpkin beer” go through the roof every October, according to research from the Brewers Association.

Any discerning hops connoisseur will tell you that crafting a pleasing pumpkin brew is an art, not a science.

“We brew it with pumpkins and have a really good blend of spices we put into it,” Arnone said of Pumking. Southern Tier’s Head Brewer Dustin Hazer said the beer’s “pie crust” flavor mostly comes from spices but, “the pumpkins lend to the beer’s nice, deep copper-golden color.” The company uses Munich and caramel malts, which Hazer said give the suds an immediately recognizable cinnamon aroma.

Wambles described the difference between a good and bad pumpkin beer as often being in the spices. “It’s a balance; sometimes it’s all flavor and spice but you’re left with no beer,” Wambles said. “Ones I don’t like are thin in body with artificial characteristics like pumpkin pie extract.”

If you plan to pick up a Cigar City Good Gourd or a Southern Tier Pumking, the brewers had different suggestions to get the most of their offerings. Wambles suggested buying Good Gourd early and letting it age for about a month before opening, to “calm down the spices and oxidize the alcohol a little bit.”

Arnone described Pumking as “a really good dessert beer.” In a promotional video for Southern Tier, Hazer suggested pairing a bottle of Pumking with carrot cake or pouring it over vanilla ice cream.

Clint Davis covers entertainment and trending news topics for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.