Sean Lightholder’s Pumpkin Ale Guest Post No. 1

Sean Lightholder is a friend of mine from the Bay Area, he has blogged in the past on many subjects including fatherhood and travel but for various reasons hasn’t put finger to keyboard in a few years. He asked if I would like him to do some guest posts on Pumpkin Ales and I am more than happy to be able to share these! :


It’s fair to say I’m obsessed with Halloween.

In 2002 the wife and I moved to Ireland and held pumpkin carving parties in local pubs, worked Halloween music into our gigs, and even got on the Gerry Ryan show due to our obsession with the holiday ( Now that we’re stateside again, this kind of behavior is somewhat less out of place…although our coworkers and neighbors sometimes mutter the orange fairy lights, cobwebs, and skull decor are a bit premature in late August.

So just imagine when this halloween obsession converges with my brewing habit…let’s just say I’m like a well-shaken Sylter Hopfen [].

Every year more breweries indulge in the controversial practice of plunging fibrous, orange squash into the brew kettle. Pumpkin beer might seem like just another of the inevitable edge-case flavor profiles craft brewers come up with to differentiate themselves in the exponentially growing craft beer market. This is not so – pumpkin beer lays claim to a historical pedigree older than just about any other new world brew.

In the 1640s, shortly after New Amsterdam became New York, before the New England united colonies were declared and tri-cornered hats became all the rage, traditional barley sugars were hard to come by. Guess what there were plenty of? That’s right: plump, starchy pumpkins. Colonial brewers, already prone to bouts of alchemy wherein anything that held still long enough could be popped into a boil kettle, didn’t wait long to start fermenting with the sugars they could coax from the ubiquitous squash (it also didn’t hurt that local pumpkins represented a patriotic alternative to imported British barley malt).

With time, industry, and a small but successful American revolution, barley malt became more available, less treasonous, and pumpkin beer became an anachronism. Then, in 1985, one of the the very first American microbreweries (in my home town of Hayward, California), discovered George Washington’s pumpkin beer recipe and decided to give it a go. Surprisingly, “Buffalo” Bill Owens found that brewing with an actual pumpkin did nothing to give his beer a “pumpkin” flavor. And I quote,

“You can’t really use pumpkin all by itself and make a beer or ale because it doesn’t give you any flavor. You might as well chew on the bark of a tree. There is no flavor in the pumpkin.” []

What he ended up doing was buying a tin of pre-blended “pumpkin pie spice” from the grocery store, making a tea from that and pouring it directly into his pre-carbonated beer. Thus the original modern “pumpkin” beer came into being without the benefit of any actual pumpkin .

Today brewers trend one way or the other: those who feel a “pumpkin” beer MUST contain pumpkin and those who feel the “pumpkin” flavor sought by the masses is more of a spice profile usually attributed to pumpkin pie.

And what about the original pumpkin ale? Bill Owens sold his brewpub (which still does a brisk business on “A” Street in Hayward) and Pyramid Brewing now brews the pumpkin beer for bottling, which they do on a massive scale every autumn. The current head brewer at Buffalo Bill’s (Drake’s alumni Mike Manty) is still innovating with on-premise pumpkin beer. In 2012 he put a sweet, high-gravity imperial pumpkin ale alongside a “regular” pumpkin beer in the pub (the “regular” recipe itself being very different from the Pyramid Brewing-produced bottled product). It will be very interesting to see what Buffalo Bill’s does this year.

Speaking of this year, I’ll be guest posting here on Simon Says about the crop of 2014 pumpkin beer on offer here in the San Francisco bay area. At least 13 pumpkin beers are available here in bottles and on tap, and I’ll be sharing each one with you. I’ll also be dropping by the original pumpkin beer brewery this weekend to see what’s on tap and hopefully chatting with Mike about himself, Buffalo Bill’s, and his thoughts about brewing with pumpkin. A brewer myself, this is my third year attempting to make a decent pumpkin beer of my own; I’ve got two different pumpkin recipes of my own devising currently chortling away in the conditioning fridge. Will one of them be THE recipe? Will I find the perfect beer bottled on the shelves this year? Will the holy grail of fermented pumpkin be on tap at Buffalo Bill’s…or perhaps another bay area brewery?

Stay tuned!

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0 Responses to Sean Lightholder’s Pumpkin Ale Guest Post No. 1

  1. thankyou for this. I don’t know why americans are so obessed with pumpkins in every shape and form but I agree that pumpkin beer must contain pumpkin because I think otherwise you end up like starbucks selling a pumpkin spice latte with no actual pumpkin in it.

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