October 2007 Issue
Brewing the Great Pumpkin
Adding squash to the mash produces a flavorful ale that harks back to Colonial times.
It’s mid-August at The Brew Keeper, a fledgling brew-on-premises restaurant and bar in North Ridgeville, but co-owner and head brewer Mark Wise is already well along in pumpkin ale production. While his counterparts are merely thinking about making the seasonal brew, his version is already aging at room temperature in a fermenting vessel. He admits to starting early because he wasn’t happy with last year’s Boo Beer.
“It was too light,” he says of his first attempt, as he stands in the glass-walled brewery off the homespun bar. “The color was pretty close, but the flavor was really missing.”
The unfinished sample he draws from a fermenting vessel and empties into a plain half-pint glass seems hearty enough — an unstrained, uncarbonated liquid similar in color to an English brown ale, with a distinctive pumpkin pie aroma. A first sip reveals a libation milder and sweeter than the average beer, with a distinctive spiciness that replaces the bitter finish of hops. Wise plans on producing 12 kegs — two for the Brew Keeper bar and, if the government approves his label, the rest for bottling and local distribution under the Mad Brewer name.
“Last year it actually sold quite quickly — I was surprised,” he says. “Honestly, I suspect it will all be gone before Halloween.”
It’s a delightfully scary situation faced by breweries and brewpubs come mid-to-late October. So great is the demand for pumpkin ale that even beer conservatives like Wise are bowing to the pressure to make it. The concoction has carved a particularly big niche for itself in northeast Ohio, where some seven breweries and brewpubs produce it. Some, like Wise, are planning to take it beyond the tap. In central Ohio, Vic Schiltz, brewmaster at Elevator Brewing Company in Marysville — which supplies beer by the keg to its Columbus location and to around 35 other eating and drinking establishments in the area — hopes to be bottling this year and canning the next.
The ingredients make it a natural choice for Halloween parties and Thanksgiving gatherings. Jack Kephart, head brewer at Willoughby Brewing Co. in Willoughby, sets aside two of his 30 kegs of Pumpkinhead Ale, so he’ll have enough for customers looking to pick up a half-gallon growler to drink with their turkey dinners.
Taste, of course, is another draw. Philip Pollick, brewmaster at the Maumee Bay Brewing Company & Restaurant in Toledo, describes the beer drinker who orders pumpkin ale as “someone who’s looking for something a little different, who’s willing to try something new.” But Luke Purcell, a brewer at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, points out that it also appeals to people who normally don’t touch the stuff.
Pumpkin ale traces its roots to colonial times, when settlers in the New World discovered that pumpkins could be used as an alternative to pricey, scarce English barley in the mash (the mix of starchy substances boiled in water to release their sugars). Today it is added to impart flavor, creaminess and body. Brewers debate the merits of canned and fresh pumpkin with the passion of vintners discussing grapes. Wise likes canned pumpkin for its ease and consistent quality. But any time saved is eventually lost in a “stuck mash,” according to Kephart.
“When you’re ‘mashing,’ you’re putting more water on top [of the mash] and draining it through, trying to collect all the sugars you made,” he explains. “When you add canned pumpkin, it turns it into a wet cement. It takes a real long time for the liquid to drain down and out.”
Those who prefer the fresh squash differ in opinion on what kinds to use and how to prepare them. Purcell, for example, selects only pie pumpkins, while Kephart and Schiltz use both pie and jack-o’-lantern varieties. Pollick simply soaks the pumpkins overnight in a liquor tank of 150-degree water before chopping them up and throwing everything but the stems into the mash the next morning.
“That’s all the good stuff you want in there,” he insists. “The string, the seeds — hey, who knows what they do?”
Kephart, Purcell and Schiltz, on the other hand, go through the painstaking process of gutting, slicing and roasting the pumpkins before pureeing them, to add depth of character to the brew, an effort that requires up to eight or nine hours more prep time. “I was thinking this year of actually smoking a couple to get a little smoky flavor into the pumpkin,” Schiltz muses. Wise sweetens the mash with molasses, while Kephart sprinkles brown sugar on pumpkin slices before roasting. And every brewer has his or her own blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and clove to add to the final boil. (Purcell even likes to put in a dash of cardamom, a tiny seed that introduces a lemon flavor.) The final results can differ dramatically, from “pumpkin pie in a bottle,” to a more subtly flavored beverage, where pumpkin registers on the palate as nuttiness and the spices as a mere tingle on the tongue.
Those who don’t have access to locally made pumpkin ales will find regionally and nationally distributed brands on grocery and beverage store shelves. The best, according to Beeradvocate magazine, include those put out by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, and Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California.
There are, of course, those brewers who don’t share a Linus-size faith in the Great Pumpkin. Mitch Dougherty, a self-described beer traditionalist recently hired by the Rock Bottom Brewery chain’s Cincinnati location, has yet to be convinced of the seasonal’s popularity. “I’m from Arizona, so I don’t know what people like out here,” he explains. “We’ll have to see what the consensus is.”
The BarrelHouse Brewing Company, also in Cincinnati, is only beginning to reconsider producing the pumpkin ale it made by the keg in 1997. “We were probably a little before our time,” says brewmaster Rick DeBar. “We sold a fair amount of it, but it didn’t sell as well as some of our other beers. It’s a dessert beer — people enjoy one or two, and that’s it.” And the Columbus Brewing Company won’t be making the pumpkin ale that was so well received when it was offered for the first time last year. According to co-owner Doug Griggs, it’s a casualty of “how the beers are falling” on the brewing schedule.
Scott Francis, brewmaster at Barley’s Ale House #1 in Columbus and Barley’s Smokehouse & Brewpub in Grandview, adds pumpkin-pie spices to a keg of pale ale in mid-October so it’ll be ready to serve at the Smokehouse on Halloween. But that’s as far as he’ll go to participate in the trend.
“Pumpkin ale is like green beer on St. Patrick’s Day,” he philosophizes. “It’s cute on Halloween. But after that, it’s not.”