I recently received, but missed a call from William (Bill) Brand, a newspaper reporter who happens to also sideline as a beer writer for the Oakland Tribune/Bay Area News Group/Media News Group and the food & drink friendly Contra Costa Times. It’s not often you run across a true newspaper reporter who can switch gears from reporting on a blazing local fire to a light-hearted piece about a fire-brewed beer. Unlike a lot of beer writers, Bill has put his time in the trenches out in the field, but after speaking to him, you soon can tell that he uses this same kind of dedication that he exhibits when penning an article about his favorite adult beverage—beer—as he does when reporting on a blazing inferno or an unfortunate murder in the city.
I found that out when I returned his call for some requested comments about a story he was working on about Pumpkin Ale, a perennial harvest time beer that has gone on from a novelty brew to one that has become a true seasonal. “Bob, I’ve got to call you back while I knock out this article about a nearby fire,” he said, and quickly hung-up the phone.
About an hour later, with the fire struck and the news article about the blaze sent to his editor, we had a nice chat about Pumpkin Ale and its growing popularity, a drink that has limited time constraints in stores, usually wrapping up appearances in 50-case aisle displays in liquor stores about the same time that the last stale pieces of Halloween candy can still be found in the kid’s candy bowl (typically buried under crumbled wrappings). But unlike post-Halloween candy that’s already showing signs of age, a smart beer drinker can usually find a good and still-fresh supply of post-holiday Pumpkin beer products that have been discounted to clear them out, making them available for stockpiling, at least through Thanksgiving and even into Christmas—if you’re lucky. A good bottle of Pumpkin Ale to wash down a slice of still-warm pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread, topped with a too genrous dollop of whipped cream, is a taste treat that can brighten up any holiday meal.
As Bill reports in his article, pumpkin beer has gotten so popular in the last few years that the Great American Beer Festival in Denver has even added a pumpkin beer subcategory for the first time. “There were 15 entries,” Brewers Association’s Julia Herz says. And Dick Cantwell’s Great Pumpkin won a second place silver medal, edged out only by a beer made with berries. It’s a brave new beery world these days.
Having discussed the problems that colonists had in securing brewing fermentables in my latest book, Beer & Food: An American History, Brand wanted my take on the origins of a gourd-ish beer and and any clues to the style’s history.
“The idea of pumpkin beer makes beer historian Bob Skilnik, author of ‘Beer & Food: An American History,’ snicker — well, almost. He admits he likes pumpkin beers; always buys them each fall. But pumpkin beer, while a true piece of Americana cuisine, was not exactly lofty stuff in colonial times.
Truth is, limited shipments of quality malted barley to make beer had to be imported from England to the colonies, Skilnik says. It was hard to obtain and expensive, so colonists made do with what they had — and that included indigenous pumpkins and corn. ‘The Indians taught the earliest colonists how to grow pumpkins along with corn. The vines grew up the corn stocks; it was an efficient use of space.’ ”
But as pointed out in the book, pumpkin was just one of the crazy ingredients that early brewers used to make suds. Artichoke beer anyone?
“So when it came time to brew beer, everything fermentable was tossed into the brew kettle: Both corn and pumpkins went in, along with persimmons and Jerusalem artichokes, Skilnik said. “When I see everyone replicating the beers of the past, I kind of laugh. What most people don’t know is there was some pretty foul stuff passing for beer in colonial America.”
You can read Bill’s complete article here and his blog here and read more about Beer & Food: An American History here. And keep your eyes out for discounted 6-packs of pumpkin beer. I’m thinking pumpkin creme brulee with a well-spiced and cellar temperature pumpkin beer on the side.