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It’s Fall, Y’all!

It’s officially autumn in central New York, and with it comes beautiful landscapes of gold, red, and orange, apple picking, cozy sweaters, football, and Halloween. Autumn also heralds in an ever-expanding array of pumpkin beers to choose from.

It may seem like pumpkin beers are just another fad-type brew, but this would be incorrect. The origin of pumpkin beer actually dates back to Colonial America. Pumpkins are native to North America and when barley was limited, settlers actually turned to pumpkins because of their high fermentable sugar content. One of the earliest recorded recipes was written in 1771, for “Pompion Ale” by the American Philosophical Society:

“Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.”

As the colonies were settled and crops became more plentiful as the years wore on, wheat, barley, and rye became the more prevalent ingredients with which to brew beer. Pumpkins still continued to be used well into the 1800s, but became far less common and eventually kind of died out until the 1980s, when craft beer started to take shape in the US.

Today, pumpkin beer as we know it is quite different than the brew of our early Ameri- can ancestors. Whereas pumpkin was the primary ingredient and took the place of the malts back then, today, our “pumpkin” beers are brewed primarily with barley and hops with either natural or artificial pumpkin added into the brewing process along with a variety of different spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg; Think less “squashy” and more along the lines of pumpkin pie.

For whatever reason, when the topic of pumpkin craft beers are brought up among the snobbiest of snobs in the industry right down to the newbies in the scene, there are usually eye-rolls and nose-squinching, and maybe some snide comment about being “basic,” thanks to the pumpkin spice craze that has infiltrated all aspects of American-life in the last few years. But the truth is, there are vast numbers of different pumpkin beers out on the market to choose from once the word “Fall” is uttered. Therefore, clearly, it’s not just a select minority of folks who enjoy pumpkin beers when the weather starts to get a bit cooler, and perhaps we all have a little “basic” taste within us, even if nobody actually wants to admit it.

Personally, I’ll be the first to admit that I love me some pumpkin brews. It’s the perfect bridge to transition from light summer beers into the deep and dark stouts and porters of winter. My suggestion is to sample a few different pumpkin beers because they don’t all taste the same; some are more spiced than others with different concentrations of each spice, some combine other flavors of coffee, bourbon, and vanilla with the pumpkin, and some are sweet while others are more savory. The selection is all up to you!

As with most of my articles, here are a select few of my favorites for you to try on your own:

Pumpkin Ale by Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Hampton, NH. (6.1% ABV) – The brewery states that this particular brew is their personal homage to the early days and heritage of American brewing with pumpkins as was described above in this article. They add natural pumpkin puree to their mash in the brewing process along with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and a variety of malts and hops. What’s produced is probably my favorite pumpkin beer that I’ve tasted this entire fall thus far! It’s light and the spices are subtle and not-at-all overpowering as so many pumpkin beers can tend to be. It is one of the most perfectly balanced pumpkin brews I’ve ever had in any capacity, being not terribly sweet and with the ability to actually taste the pumpkin itself. Wegmans is your go-to to find this treat!

Saranac Pumpkin Ale by Saranac Brewery in Utica, NY (5.3% ABV) – This is one of my go-to pumpkin beers every year, and each year I find the flavor profile to be ever-so-slightly different, but never drastically so. 2020’s batch is exceptional. (Finally, something good to come out of this year!!) The spice blend of cinnamon, allspice, clove, and ginger are well-rounded, balanced and the pumpkin flavor melds seamlessly into the mixture. Two big thumbs up! Well-distributed, you can likely find this pumpkin brew anywhere beer is sold.

Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin by New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, CO (6.4% ABV) – Sick of traditional pumpkin beers? Well, have no fear because this eclectic, yet tasty, pumpkin brew is sure to invigorate your tastebuds! This ale is brewed with Saigon cinnamon, habaneros, and De Arbol peppers. It has a pumpkin-based flavor with a bright dash of cinnamon mixed with a fantastic amount of heat on your palate; You will not be disappointed with this one! Again, pretty widely distributed, you can find this at just about any grocery or specialty beer store alike.

I must also mention Southern Tier Brewing Company (Lakewood, NY) and all their different varieties of pumpkin beers: Pumking (the original pumpkin brew), Warlock (the stout version), Cold Brew Coffee Pumking, Rum Barrel Aged Pumking, & Pumking Nitro (all three are self-explanatory). Whereas the original is fantastic, all the versions are excellent in their own right. You can find these varieties far and wide over the CNY region.

Pumking is also so popular and well-loved that Southern Tier hosts a Pumking Fest every year at their brewery in Lakewood. Even with COVID-restrictions, they’ve still managed to make it work this year and will host five separate capped-attendance sessions over the course of 2 days (September 26 & 27) this fall. Tickets are affordable but they go very quickly every year. There are also new and exclusive Pumking variants at the event, along with 35+ drafts and they’ll be promoting their new Pumking Whiskey at the event which is also hitting the shelves of liquor stores every in CNY. By the time this article comes out in print and online, I’ll have already been to this year’s event – and it’s my first Pumking Fest!

Pumpkin brews are a perfect addition to your craft beer preferences this fall. They’re festive, they can be unique or traditional, and there’s just so many to choose from! So pack a few pumpkin brews into your knapsack, take a hike in the Adirondacks or Catskills, and climb to the top of a mountain to sit and admire the fall foliage and views while you partake in an appropriately fall-themed adult-beverage. And don’t forget to toast your Colonial American forefathers while you’re at it! Cheers!

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!