A Rumination on Pumpkin Beer, With Digressions That Will Make Sense Only to Someone Else Who Drinks Pumpkin Beer. Maybe.

Note: I’m gonna gloss, oversimplify, and no doubt display ignorance a lot in what follows, but you’re welcome to get all pedantic about it in the comments.

I bought some pumpkin beer this week. It’s September which—if you adhere to the solstice/equinox notion of seasonal boundaries[1]—contains a small amount northern hemisphere autumn, which also contains October, month of jack-o-lanterns, and November, month of eating pumpkin pie. What I’m saying is it’s okay to get pumpkin beer in September. Or any other month it’s available, frankly, but more on that in a moment.

12 pumpkin beers reviewed at Boston.com.

12 pumpkin beers reviewed at Boston.com.

Specifically, in my case, it was Dogfish Head Punkin Ale. This will be my first time trying it, but I expect I’ll like it. Dogfish Head is a superb brewery, and in general I enjoy pumpkin ales. Two years ago I homebrewed a pumpkin ale which I loved, and plan to brew one again in the next week. Laurelwood Brewing makes a nice one, so I’m sure I’ll have it some time this fall. I’ll also be on the lookout for pumpkin ales from the many fine local breweries here in Eugene. Aaaannnnd, there’s a very cool pumpkin beer event coming up in October at Eugene’s Bier Stein.

Of course, maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “What the bloody hell is wrong with you, Bill?” I get that a lot, and not just about pumpkin beer. But it does seem pumpkin beer draws a level of ire out of proportion to its possible offense. Just the other day, I saw a piece at Deadspin by Will Gordon about pumpkin beer which was both funny and true and sad all at once.

“We the people like to complain about every damn thing in the world, and for some strange reason, we’ve settled on pumpkin beer as one of the things to complain about the most.”

I suspect the hatred of pumpkin beer this time of year is second only to the hatred (and love) of the pumpkin spice latte[2]. I’ve sure encountered plenty of it. After I tweeted about enjoying a pumpkin ale a couple of years ago, a friend tweeted back “if it has pumpkin in it, it’s not beer.” That statement was quite benign compared to some pumpkin beer wrath I’ve seen. In any case, I remembered it yesterday as I read Will Gordon’s piece, and it got me to thinking about what makes beer beer.

My guess is my friend was defining beer the way the Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law, defined beer away back in 1516. According to the original law, beer could be made only with water, barley, and hops. (They didn’t know about yeast in 1516, so it wasn’t on the list[3]). A lot of people who object to less common beer styles cite the law, in spirit if not in name.

By that measure, anything made with ingredients other than barley, water, and hops wasn’t beer. Pumpkin beers may include pumpkin (but not always), so they’re out. Technically an oatmeal stout is also out, though people who get het up by pumpkin beer will usually give the burly oatmeal stout a pass. Hefeweizens will also get a pass from many purists. Unless they have fruit in them. (“Fruit in beer?!?! Abomination!”) So, Apricot Weizen, you’re out. Strawberry blond, out—wait, that’s just the color of the ale. Okay, it’s in then. Maybe. (Suspicious eyes.)

Under the spirit of the Bavarian Purity Law, pretty much any beer advertised on TV during a sporting event is also not beer. Many beers produced by the large national breweries like Coors and Anheuser-Busch are what are known as American Adjunct Lagers[4], which means in addition to barley they may include so-called adjunct grains like rice. According to them Bavarians 500 years ago, beer = barley, hops, water and none of that other crap people sometimes put into the brew kettle. Tell that to the ancient Chinese, who made beer with—you guessed it—rice.

So what makes the Bavarians of half a century ago the arbitors of beer? I mean, these old Germans didn’t invent beer. We don’t know who invented beer, but we do know it’s been with us for at least 5,000 years. Hell, it’s mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh[5]. Over the millennia, beers of many varieties have been made. The addition of dates, fruit, nuts, and more is common throughout history. These days, many folks get loopy over many flavors and aromas hops impart to beer, but hops are a relatively recent addition which were originally introduced as a preservative. The beloved IPA-style which dominates the American market today was developed as an overhopped ale to help it survive the long sea voyage from Great Britain to India in the 19th century.

At its foundation, beer is grain steeped in water and allowed to ferment. Everything else is optional. Of course, over the millennia we’ve worked out the process and recipes to an incredible degree. We malt the grain to make the starches more available. We heat the water to precise temperatures to ensure ideal conversion of starch to fermentable sugars. We boil the resulting liquid for just the right amount of time, adding hops at intervals for bitterness, flavor, aroma. We pitch specific strains of yeast and carefully control fermentation temperature. Beer is serious business, both in required knowledge and experience to produce a drinkable brew and in economic potential. When you think about it, the Bavarian Purity Law and its subsequent refinements are a reflection of that seriousness, so is it no wonder so many see it as the ultimate arbiter of proper beer?

But what is a law anyway? It’s an application of force. It’s not about right or wrong, but about who holds the biggest club. Certainly laws are necessary in a civil society, but they’re hardly absolute, sacrosanct measures of what is Good and Decent and True. As often as not, if not more so, what’s legal and what’s ethical or moral are in direct conflict. In America, the law has given us Jim Crow and lynching. It’s given us Ferguson. It protects rapists and millionaire Wall Street predators. It victimizes the poor and minorities. We try to fix it, but we often fail and in any event, a lot of people don’t want to fix it. A lot of people like the status quo.

With a name like a “Purity Law,” the implication is that those old Germans were trying to protect some kind of ideal. Not really. Mostly what they were trying to do was regulate wheat prices. Sure, there were some aspects of the law which were more objectively good. Prior to the law, brewers might have used nettles or soot instead of hops. Those may have been effective preservatives, but could produce some unfortunate gastric effects (including death).

So the law wasn’t about making Proper Beer. It was about price fixing and maybe incidentally not murdering people with whatever random shit was in the keg on a given day. As one definition of what constitutes beer, the Reinheitsgebot is certainly valid. But it’s not the only way to make beer.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means pumpkin beer is beer. It’s beer with pumpkin in it. Or not. A lot of so-called pumpkin beers are really beers with pumpkin pie spices added rather than actual pumpkin. Some include pumpkin in the mash, some add it during the boil. A friend of mine made a wonderful pumpkin ale in which he added chunks of roasted sugar pumpkin during primary fermentation, and I’ve read of using pumpkin pie filling the same way[6]. Me and my beerOf course, as it’s a fall ale, it’s probably a style which is maltier, darker, and a little less hoppy than summer ales, but like all things beer there’s dozens or likely hundreds of variations. When I made my pumpkin ale, I included pumpkin in the mash and added cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice five minutes before the boil was finished. The result was superb.

Unless you don’t like that sort of thing.

Which, of course, is perfectly cool. Some of us like pumpkin ales, and some of us like pilseners, and some of like IPAs, or stouts and porters, or pales. And some of us like Coors Light. (And some of us like beers of many styles. Hell, I’ll drink just about anything with an IBU and an ABV.)

They’re all beer, no matter what those old Bavarians and their contemporary fellow travelers might say. There’s the law, and there’s beer, and given a choice, I’ll take the beer.

[1]I don’t. Meterologically, it doesn’t really make sense, and in any case around here it’s:

  • Fall: September, October, November and about half of December, though sometimes not.
  • Winter: Decemberish, January, Kill-Me-Nowbruary, March, and sometimes April.
  • Spring: Maybe April, May (with occasional January flashbacks) June, and the first week of July.
  • Summer: Whatever’s left.

[2]My own feelings about the pumpkin spice latte is that it’s too sweet for me, but I understand why people enjoy it. Their enjoyment inspires in me no feelings one way or the other, but I admit the extensive discussion of the pumpkin spice latte while summer is still upon us reminds me too soon of the coming autumn and thus my annual onset of seasonal affective disorder.

[3]The 1516 law was finally replaced in 1993 by the Provisional German Beer Law, which finally allowed yeast as well—a century or so after Pasteur discovered it. The new law also allows wheat malt and cane sugar, so finally hefeweizen is legal.

Cane sugar is used not for sweetness, by the way, but to help produce CO2 for carbonation during final conditioning. Typically it’s included at such low quantities it doesn’t affect flavor one iota, and most of that will be consumed by yeast before the beer ever gets to your mouth.

[4]American Adjunct Lagers, both light and regular styles, receive a mixture of adoration and contempt, depending on whom you ask. “That’s not beer, it’s pre-processed piss,” I’ve heard it said of Coors Light, for example. But a lot of people like these beers. In fact, a lot of people prefer them to other options.

As a guy who likes craft beer and who brews his own beer, I think I’m supposed to fall into the anti-American Adjunct Lagers camp, especially the “light” variants. But I don’t. Budweiser is a passable lager, and Coors Light doesn’t taste bad. It doesn’t taste like much of anything, but that’s part of its appeal. Pabst Blue Ribbon takes crap for being a favorite of so-called hipsters (whatever that means) but I’m going to come right out and say when I’m in the mood for a lager, PBR is often the one I choose. Not everyone likes full-bodied, malty, or hop forward beers. Fortunately, these days, there’s something for everyone.

[5]Ninkasi Brewing here in Eugene is named for the ancient Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, to whom a prayer was offered which served to both honor beer and as a recipe for beer.

[6]You do have to be careful about such additions. One of the things the boil does is kill a lot of microorganisms which make the beer taste nasty. Once the wort is chilled to yeast pitching temperatures, don’t just drop things willy-nilly into the pot. Roasted pumpkin, brought straight from the oven and handled with sanitized equipment, should be fine.