Pursuing the Perfect Pumpkin Beer

The Great PumpkinWith Halloween and Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about homebrew for the holidays. For me, the perfect beer for this time of year is a solid pumpkin ale. It encompasses the spirit of the changing seasons and makes a perfect transition from my light summer sippers to my hearty winter ales. But what makes a good pumpkin beer? I think we all know it when we taste it. There is a strong malt backbone, a thick rich body, restrained sweetness, solid pumpkin taste, and a just a hint of spice. So, how do you get those characteristics in your beer?

It’s all about that Base

beer_flightsA great beer always needs a great base recipe, and pumpkin beers are no exception. You can load it up with pumpkin, get the ideal spice mix, and ferment to perfection, but if you have a bad recipe your beer will never be great. You have a bit of choice in the style of beer you want to start with. While a nice amber beer is the classic base for pumpkin beers, there is no need to stay within that guide line. In the past, I have made pumpkin porters, saisons, and barley wines. There are only a few guidelines I would recommend when picking your pumpkin beer’s style. First is to avoid styles which over accentuate hops, such as pale ales and IPAs. These are great styles on their own, but they can clash with the pumpkin flavor. Additionally I would avoid any beer where the style demands a sterilely clean flavor, such as pilsner or helles, where pumpkin might show up as a perceived flaw. Finally, stay away from beers that demand overly estery yeasts (bubble gum and pumpkin… yum!). Other than these three “rules” any beer is fair game for pumpkin beer. I am personally more attached to  the classic amber ale, but it all depends on your taste.

When choosing a grist, you can start to have some fun. Pumpkin beers provide an excellent template to experiment with some of the more unusual malts. For a crusty type flavor to add to your beer, consider using biscuit malt. If you want a sweeter flavor, use some lighter malts such as Crystal 10 and 20. Smoked malts such as cherry wood and mesquite can lend a phenolic edge to your beer. finally, something like special B can imbue the beer with rich dark flavors.

Perfect Portion of Pumpkin

Here comes your next big choice in planning your pumpkin beer, fresh pumpkin vs canned pumpkin. This debate is really about personal preference and, let’s be honest, how lazy you are. Canned pumpkin, while considered by many to be the “cheater” method, but it actually yields very nice results. Not only will this allow you to skip hours of tedious labor, but it also eliminates the risk of a bad product. It’s important to remember that pumpkins are an agricultural product and flavors definitely vary from patch-to-patch and as a result your beer will vary from batch-to-batch. Canned pumpkin, as a processed and homogenized product, eliminates some of this risk. The most important thing to remember is to pick a product with no preservatives as this which can interfere with your yeast. Now, if you want to be hard-core and make your pumpkin puree from scratch, you have to keep a couple of things in mind. The first is your choice in pumpkin. Make sure to choose a pumpkin which is designed for pumpkin pie or savory dishes. This means that your kid’s carving pumpkin is not going to fit the bill. There are many varieties of pumpkin which can be used, but a few of the easiest to find are sugar pumpkins, cheese pumpkins, and cinderella pumpkins. A full list of pumpkin varieties can be found HERE. Now comes time to roasting your gourd, a good simple technique is to split the pumpkin, remove the guts, and bake face down in a 400 degree oven for about 30-45 minutes (till a knife easily pierces the flesh). Next scrape out the flesh and add it to your mash or boil. The key here is the roasting of the pumpkin, allowing for caramelization and maillard reactions. I would recommend staying away from uncooked pumpkin, since raw pumpkin can be sharp and give a very vegetable like flavor.

One of the biggest mistakes a pumpkin beer brewer can make is adding too little pumpkin to their beer. Pumpkin has a very subtle flavor and can be easily lost in beer. Many people take this to mean that there is no point in adding pumpkin and instead focus on the pumpkin spice. Now, a great beer can be made with spices alone, but with a little bit more effort you can have both rich pumpkin flavor and complex spicy notes. The key is adding ample pumpkin to your beer. My personal minimum is 1 lb of pumpkin per gallon of beer, but I would not be opposed to adding much more. The timing of pumpkin additions is also crucial. Pumpkin can be added to the mash, the boil, and during fermentation; each one of these additions gives a different aspect of pumpkin flavor. I personally prefer to made additions during the mash and the boil and skip the fermentation addition. This is more due to a personal hang up on infection risk rather than a disbelief in the efficacy of the addition. At the very least, I would recommend adding pumpkin to both the mash and the boil.

Spice up your Life

One of the factors which can really make or break a pumpkin beer is the choice and ratio of spices. Of course the easiest method is to pick up a pre-made spice mix. One thing you get with a pre-made mix is consistency, so you can easily replicate the results time and time again. McCormick makes a very nice pumpkin pie spice mix with the classic cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. While this is definitely an acceptable method, part of the fun of home brewing is experimentation with flavor. Creating your own spice mixture allows you to think outside the box and create something unique. The classic pumpkin pie spice mix is Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg, and Allspice usually in a 12:4:4:1 ratio. That being said, there is no need to stick to this mix. If you like more of a hot/spicy then kick ramp up your ginger. If you’re into a deep nutty flavor, then make nutmeg your number one spice. Now, just because these are the classic spices, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go wild raiding the spice drawer. Vanilla complements pumpkin beer very well, giving a great mellow backbone. Fresh “raw” ginger gives a more sharp and vivacious note to your brew. You can even go hog-wild and try fenugreek, which gives a maple syrup like note to your beer. My only word of caution is to use moderation with your spices. Too many spices can give you a muddled flavor that brings your beer from complex to over complicated. My suggestion would be to stick with 4-5 spices at most and experiment with one variable at a time.

Sources definitely vary in the amount of spice which is appropriate to use in your batch. Some people say 1 teaspoon while others use as much as 1 tablespoon. One of the most important things to remember is that you can’t take the spice out once it is in. A safe amount would be 1 teaspoon but up to 1/2 tablespoon would still be reasonable. If you are uncertain about the amount of spice you want, start small and work your way up. Remember, you can always add more spice later!

Personally, I am highly conservative with my spices, since a heavy hand can ruin a beer. Unfortunately, too little spice can also lead to a less than desirable beer. One way to remedy this situation is to make a tincture to add post fermentation. Simply take your preferred spice mix and add it to vodka, then allow it to soak for around 2 weeks. Once the flavor has been extracted, simply add as much of it to your beer as you like. Using the tincture method allows for more precise control over your beer and can decrease the risk of a disappointing brew. You can find an article on making tinctures HERE.

Thinking Outside of the Gourd

Now, here is where things get interesting. Once you have established your base beer, you have a number of different options ahead of you. One very popular technique is fermenting inside of a pumpkin. The theory behind this is that you will be extracting even more “pumpkin” flavor. In my opinion (which is by no means the final word on the subject) is that this presents more problems than benefits. For one, the control over microbes is pitiful in this technique and you have the recipe for a nasty infection. Secondly, raw and uncooked pumpkin has a very sharp and vegetal taste which will do little for your beer. If you are interested in the novelty of using a whole pumpkin, I would suggest serving your homebrew in a pumpkin. This is technique is both fun, safe (for your beer), and can even add some extra complexity if you flame the inside of the pumpkin. A very good article on making a pumpkin cask can be found HERE.

Another option you have at this point is the addition of oak to your beer. Oak, with its rich vanilla and roasted flavors blends wonderfully with pumpkin and pumpkin spice. If you are only making a small amount of beer, I would suggest going with simple oak chips. While these cheap little guys are very one-dimensional in taste, their cost outweighs their simplicity, especially on a small scale. For the pumpkin beer connoisseur, I would suggest oak cubes or spirals. With a larger amount of surface area and greater selection of styles to choose from, these oak products are perfect for those who want some serious oak in their pumpkin beer. Finally, If  you are lucky enough to find a bourbon barrel or just freaking love pumpkin beer, an oak barrel is the perfect vessel to hold your brew. I would suggest saving the full barrel for a high gravity or imperial pumpkin beer since a longer time will be required to extract the most out of the barrel. As a rule of thumb on oak, the higher the toast provides more smoke and vanilla while the lighter the oak will provides butterscotch and coconut flavor. American oak is more aggressive in flavor, while French oak has a more subtle tone.

Finally, and possibly most controversially, you can consider using something other than pumpkin in your pumpkin beer. “Gasp, you blasphemer!” says the crowed. Alright, hear me out on this one. Pumpkin is a great gourd, but it is far from the most flavorful species in the squash family. In fact, the pie industry caught on to this and actually makes many of its so called “pumpkin pies” from butternut squash. I know how you feel, but the sense of betrayal will soon wear off. Going outside of the pumpkin can be a bit intimidating, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Good substitutions for pumpkin include sweet potato and butternut squash. Give it a try some times and when people ask what makes your pumpkin beer so flavorful, just give a wink and say its your secret ingredient.

Recipe: Pumpkin Beer

This is my most recent attempt at a pumpkin beer. I loaded up the pumpkin and used ample amounts of pumpkin spice. I used a classic amber base and mashed at higher temperatures to give some residual sweetness.

OG: 1.052 – FG: 1.0## – #.#% ABV

  • 9 lb Marris OtterBeholdthepumpkin
  • 1 lb Crystal 60
  • .75 lb Crystal 90
  • .5 lb Flaked Wheat
  • 10 lb Pumpkin Puree (1/2 in Mash, 1/2 in Boil in the last 5 minutes)
  • 0.75 oz Willamette (60 min)
  • 1 oz Mount Hood 30 min
  • 0.25 Willamette 15 min
  • 1/2 oz Pumpkin Spice Flame Out
Yeast: Wyeast 1272 American Ale II (With a 1 liter starter)
Notes: I mashed at 155 for 1 hour to provide more body and residual sugars. Mash was a bit sticky so I added some rice hulls in order to aid in lautering.


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