Fall is just around the corner. And with the coming harvest, cool nights, and fireside gatherings, comes the time of year to brew one of my favorite beers: Pumpkin beer!
Since I had my first pint of spicy, delicious pumpkin beer at the Broad Ripple Brewpub several years ago, I have made it my quest to brew up as much high quality pumpkin beer every year as I can. Over the years, I have honed in my main recipe, while experimenting with different styles. This year, I have already brewed twenty gallons of pumpkin wheat porter. While I had the worst stuck sparge ever, (pumpkin and wheat together are a VERY sticky combination!) I did manage to get an excellent smelling wort that promptly began fermenting. Even now, my basement smells like freshly baked pumpkin pie as my airlocks churn away.
So what makes an excellent pumpkin beer? Really, it depends on the preferences of the people enjoying the brew. Personally, I like to have a nice, malty base beer to accompany the pumpkin, which can add a nice flavor and mouthfeel. My base beer tends to be amber, full of crystal malts and carapils for body, and utilizing Maris Otter as the base. Maris Otter, for the uninformed, is a British pale malt that tends to be slightly darker than other pales, but which has a very satisfying bread character. There are a number of beer styles and malts that can be used when making pumpkin beer, and experimentation is half the fun of brewing! You may want to use six-row for a portion of the grist, as the surplus diastatic power can help convert some of the sugars in the pumpkin if you plan on putting it in the mash.
Pumpkin “Types” and when to add it
I’ve played around with both pie pumpkin, cut, cubed and baked in the oven for an hour or so, and also canned pumpkin. In my experience, canned is the way to go. It eliminates the extra time and effort that goes into preparing fresh pumpkin, and the results are just as good. Just be sure you are using pure pumpkin. Some of the canned pumpkin pie mixtures may contain extra sugars or preservatives that can alter or inhibit fermentation. If you do choose to use fresh pumpkin (and who could blame you? It IS fun to do everything from scratch!), I’ve heard of people sprinkling some cane or brown sugar on the pumpkin before baking in order to get a nice carmelization.
For an extract brewer, simply adding pumpkin into your grain steeping bag (or a separate muslin bag) and steeping between 150 and 155F can give your beer the color, flavor and mouthfeel of pumpkin. For all-grain brewers, you can use the pumpkin in the mash. However, pumpkin is very sticky, and can quickly lead to a stuck mash if you are not careful. Try using a bit more water at mash-in, and be sure to use plenty of rice hulls! A protein rest may also help to dissolve some of the proteins in the pumpkin, though I normally do just a single saccharification rest myself. Taking your time with the sparge will help to avoid problems with sticking. Some people will add pumpkin into the boil. Though I have done this in the past, I would avoid this for the same reason I would avoid adding any fruit in the boil: boiling fruit can release pectins, which can lead to hazy beer. If clarity isn’t a concern though, you may do some in a muslin bag during the boil. A thought I’ve had (though never tried) is pasteurizing the pumpkin and adding it into secondary. You may get a little more fermentation, and the pumpkin flavor should be more than apparent!
What About Spices?
Ah, and the spices! So much of the characteristic pumpkin beer flavor can come from the melange of pumpkin pie spices that some brewers forgo using pumpkin at all! Powdered spices can be used to great effect in a beer. Personally, I use whole spices that I crush up and dry roast in a small cast iron skillet. This helps to release the aromatics and freshen up spices that may have been lying around for awhile. A good pumpkin pie mix works well, or you can pick and choose your spices. Ginger works very well too, either fresh or powdered. My own spice blend consists of fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamon, usually about a quarter to half an ounce of each of the dry spices, and about one ounce of fresh ginger, put into a muslin hop bag and added at the last ten to twenty minutes of the boil. You may also choose to add spices to the secondary or keg. If spices are added this late, they can be very strong, and the beer may benefit from an extended conditioning phase during which the spices mellow out.
Hop additions are normally kept low on pumpkin beers, as hops aren’t a main focus of most pumpkin beers. I will usually do a sixty minute addition, and sometimes a thirty minute addition as well. I tend to shy away from late hop additions, as I want the flavor and aroma of pumpkin and spices to dominate. I tend to shy away from the strongly citrus American hops in favor of more noble European varieties or woody English hops.
Yeast strain is another factor to take into consideration. I like to use Wyeast Scottish Ale yeast, as it has a clean, malty profile and a wide temperature range. Choose a yeast based on what characteristics you would like to bring out. If you want a fruity, funky yeast character with some phenolics to complement the pumpkin and spices, go with a Belgian strain. If you want something dry and flocculant, there are a number of good English strains. American strains, such as Wyeast American Ale, are a good choice as well, as they can be neutral and clean.
Remember that these are all suggestions. I’ll tell you what I tell many people who I talk with at Great Fermentations: this is your playground, have fun with it! If you want to make a super hoppy pumpkin IPA, do it! Your imagination is the limit when it comes to making a world class pumpkin beer you can call your own.