Anatomy of a Colonial-Era Pumpkin Ale | Craft Beer & Brewing

Anatomy of a Colonial-Era Pumpkin Ale

Popular legend holds that colonists brewed ales with pumpkins, even if the evidence is scanty. But if they did, what would they have been like? Frank Clark, food historian and brewer at Colonial Williamsburg, walks us through his highly educated guess.

Joe Stange 9 days ago

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Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s that pumpkin-beers time of year. Store shelves are jammed with them, while homebrewers try to figure out how best to work with that bulbous orange squash.

Brewing beers with pumpkin has become an American tradition, fueled by commercialism and seasonal hankerings. The oft-repeated, received wisdom is that American colonists brewed with pumpkin. Did they really though?

“It is funny, but with all the talk of colonial people brewing with pumpkins, I have yet to find an actual recipe in any period sources for making a pumpkin beer,” says Frank Clark, brewer and master of foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. “All of the 18th century brewing manuals were written in England, and pumpkins are a New World plant that had not gained popularity over there yet.

“Even some of the 19th century American sources I have run across do not mention a recipe for pumpkin beer,” Clark says. “Now having said that, I can make some educated guesses as to what they would have done.

“First off, it is likely that the reason they used pumpkin was that they did not have access to malt. So the pumpkin would be to provide fermentable sugars to take the place of malt. Even though there are no recipes for pumpkin, there are lots of other plants that are used this way for beer at the time. I do have recipes for making beer from green corn stalks and pea hulls. In these recipes the corn stalk and/or pea hulls are boiled in water to extract the sugars, and the liquid is reduced down and boiled with hops and then fermented.

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“My bet would be that they would do the same thing with pumpkins. Often they might have supplemented the weak sugars from the plants with molasses. This, however, would not make a particularly satisfying homebrew by today’s standards. So for recipes, I would suggest starting with a very light mash of wheat and barley. Because in Colonial Virginia we brewed more with wheat than barley, you could even go with all wheat. I would guess a grain bill of 5 pounds (2.3 kg) or so.

“To the mash I would add a large pumpkin that had been cut into chunks and baked in the oven at 350°F (177°C) for 45 minutes to draw out the sweetness. I think you could mash this as usual with the pumpkin chunks, and then perhaps add a cup or so of molasses to it, and boil with a couple of ounces of Kent Golding family hops.

“Eighteenth-century brewers practiced first-wort hopping, so all of the hops would go in at the beginning of the boil, but they often dry-hopped beers that were to be aged or shipped to other markets.”

For the yeast, "we usually use Whitbread’s because it is a pretty old strain. They had a three-yeast strain they used since the mid-19th century, and early in this century they took out one of the yeasts, leaving a two-yeast strain.

"It would also be fine to add Brett to this beer as it was in just about every beer in that time. You could also go with old Belgian strains as well, since the yeast of the time would not be as clean-flavored as English yeasts today."

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Based on Clark’s insights, we’ve cobbled together the following recipe. Brewers and drinkers who are interested in more of this kind of thing might want to be in Chicago in late October, when the Brewseum hosts the Beer Culture Summit, dedicated to American beer history. Clark will be among the panelists.

Educated-Guess Colonial Pumpkin Ale

ALL-GRAIN

Batch size: 5.5 gallons (20.8 liters)
Brewhouse efficiency: 72%
OG: 1.031
FG: 1.004
IBUs: 20
ABV: 3.5%

MALT/GRAIN BILL

3 lb (1.4 kg) white wheat malt
2 lb (907 g) 6-row pale malt
10 lb (4.5 kg) pre-baked pumpkin chunks

HOPS & ADDITIONS SCHEDULE

1 oz (57 g) Kent Goldings [5% AA] at first wort (FWH)
12 oz (340 g) molasses at 60 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Kent Goldings [5% AA] at dry hop in secondary or keg

YEAST

Safale S-04, Wyeast 1099, or White Labs WLP017; or choose a rustic Belgian yeast, like Wyeast 3726 Farmhouse Ale. Optional: Add a favorite strain, or multiple strains, of Brettanomyces.

DIRECTIONS

Cut pumpkin into chunks and bake at 350°F (177°C) for 45 minutes. Add baked pumpkin to milled grains and mash at 155°F (68°C) for 60 minutes. Raise the temperature to 168°F (76°C) and mash out, making sure the FWH hops are in the kettle to receive the first runnings. Add the molasses, stir to dissolve, and boil for 60 minutes. Chill to 68°F (20°C), pitch the yeast, and ferment. Dry hop or keg hop after primary fermentation.

BREWER’S NOTES

About spices: "You could add spices, but they were pretty costly so the poorer sort would not have put them in. Good choices would be ginger, which you see a lot in 18th century beer recipes, and cloves and nutmeg."

(Editor's note: Article and recipe updated on 9/25/2019 with additional insight from Clark on yeasts and spices.)

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