It's the Great Pumpkin Beer, Andy Brown!

In general, pumpkin beers have similar flavors to that popular Thanksgiving Day desert: pumpkin pie. Beers brewed with pumpkin fly off the shelves at this time of year.
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Who doesn't recall the Peanuts TV special "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"? Linus and Sally await the appearance of a mythical and mystical spirit, the Great Pumpkin, in some depressing-ass pumpkin patch overnight on Halloween. It was one of the great downers of my childhood: I always hoped the Great Pumpkin would reveal itself to them. But no, repeat viewing after repeat viewing each October, it never did.

Wynkoop head brewer Andy Brown holding this year's pumpkin ale.

Luckily, here in adulthood, a couple of Great Pumpkin Beers recently found me. I didn't need to stress or bum-out awaiting them. And they led me to examine the allure of, er, squash ale. Why buy it? Why drink this seasonal beer style?

Well, for one, pumpkin ales are an established part of American history: George Washington brewed beer with pumpkins. (He also grew hemp. But that's a whole other story...and odd beer style.) How patriotic can you get?

In modern times, though, pumpkin beers have only existed commercially for, more or less, the last 25 years. Usually they're spiced with some combination of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, and often brewed using actual pumpkin in one form or another (it may be pureed, it may be chunked). In general, pumpkin beers have similar flavors to that popular Thanksgiving Day desert: pumpkin pie.

Bill Owens gets credit for popularizing pumpkin ale. (This Bill Owens, though, isn't the ex-Governor of Colorado.) A former photojournalist, Owens opened one of California's first brewpubs, Buffalo Bill's Brewery, in Hayward, California in 1983. (No longer a brewery owner, Owens now documents and champions the microdistillery movement.) After reading about Washington's use of pumpkins in beer, Owens set out to brew his own version in the mid-'80s.

Contacted by phone, Owens surprisingly told me that pumpkin adds "no flavor" to the beer -- although it does aid with fermentation, since its starches convert into sugar during the brewing process. Owens says that pumpkin ale's chief flavor -- besides from the malt and hops -- comes about only from the addition of pumpkin pie spices.

Flavor...or no actual flavor from the pumpkins themselves? Whatever the case may be, beers brewed with pumpkin fly off the shelves at this time of year. During a recent visit to my local liquor store, it had Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale (still one of the most widely-circulated brands) and about five from other breweries. A few days later, only a six pack remained: Blue Moon Brewing Company's Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale, made by MillerCoors in Golden.

One brewpub in Seattle, the Elysian Brewing Company, held a festival earlier in October featuring nine of its own pumpkin beers and 16 more from other breweries. Talk about figuring out another use for pumpkins besides just jack-o-lanterns.

Whole Foods' online blog even points shoppers towards pumpkin beers. Naturally, it mentions one that is tastily -- and trendily -- organic.

Someone kindly sent me a six pack of it, as luck would have it: Will Stevens' Pumpkin Ale, from Wolaver's in Vermont. Wolaver's pumpkin beer is a golden-orange brew. It reminded me somewhat, somehow -- Mother of God! -- of a Tripel ale, the strong golden ales historically brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium. But it's actually a lighter hybrid between a brown ale and amber ale with pumpkin and spices (including pureed ginger from Hawaii) added. The actual flavor of pumpkin in the beer may be "very subtle," according to brewer Mike Gerhart, but he says, "It's there."

Organic pumpkin ale made by Wolaver's in Vermont.

The Wolaver's has a nice mouthfeel, coating the tongue after every swallow. There are cloves and hops in the nose. Immediately, its sweet flavor arrives at the tip of tongue. And it has a nice hop follow-through. It leaves one with a satisfying sensation, the kind that lingers after eating a slice of pumpkin pie.

Naturally, it's said that pumpkin beers go spectacularly when paired with, well, pumpkin pie. However, at the Wynkoop Brewing Company's recent beer dinner, the spicy, substantial and matured pumpkin ale (aged close to a year) meshed most excellently with the creamy pumpkin bisque flavored with shredded smoked duck and sage. The combination proved to be, unexpectedly, the beer-food pairing of the night.

Pumpkin ale paired with pumpkin bisque soup at the Wynkoop Brewing Company.

Andy Brown is the latest head brewer at Denver's oldest brewpub -- and he's been a breath of fresh air at the elder, storied establishment. Since arriving at the Wynkoop close to two years ago, he's won a couple of medals at the Great American Beer Festival for his light and dark German-style beers, his hefeweizen and schwarzbier.

To his credit, Brown went all out, as well, in concocting his pumpkin ale: during different stages of the beer-making process, he used toasted pumpkin, pumpkin puree and flaked pumpkin. It's spiced with cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, fresh ground ginger and nutmeg.

The Wynkoop's regulars have come to expect pumpkin ale at this time of year. Customers even call and ask when it will be ready. Brown says, "If I hadn't made a pumpkin beer, I probably would have gotten death threats."

Does the pumpkin actually add flavor to the beer? "I think so," Brown replies. "I get pumpkin from it. It's kind of vegetative: it has a starchy, gourd flavor."

On Halloween, the brewery will be tapping this year's batch of Riverside Pumpkin Ale (named after the cemetery) from a tap line running through a hollowed out pumpkin. This year's version -- an orange-colored beverage -- smells of cinnamon and apple, and has a light, buoyant cider-like quality. Additionally, on November 7, the brewery will be serving what's left of last year's darker, more complex pumpkin brew.

Why drink pumpkin ales?

Pour a glass, smell those spices bubbling forth. It's often said that memories are specifically triggered by scents. Pumpkin ales evoke the autumnal change of season, the festivities of both Halloween and Thanksgiving. And like other fall seasonal beers, they're like putting on a warm coat and comfortably welcoming chillier weather.

And we can all give thanks to the Great Pumpkin for that.

(All photos by Gregory Daurer)

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