“I stole the idea from George Washington,” admits Bill Owens, the Northern California brewer credited with popularizing pumpkin ale. Historians tell us that our first President was a beer enthusiast, and that he brewed ale from gourds. Now, 250 years later, pumpkin beers are an annual American rite and a sudsy segue into autumn. Pair them with a few of the cheeses they like and there’s your debate-night platter.
For many years, Owens owned Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, one of the state’s first post-Prohibition brewpubs. In 1985, inspired by a story he read about Washington’s gourd beer, he roasted some pumpkin, chopped it up and threw it into the mash tun. But the resulting beer was underwhelming. “There was no pumpkin flavor,” recalls Owens. “So I walked across the street to the supermarket and picked up a tin of pumpkin pie spice.”
Thirty years later, that familiar blend of baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves) remains the signature scent of most pumpkin brews. Some use more, some use less. (I vote for less.) The spices are added right before the beer is carbonated to preserve their aroma. Hops are downplayed so the spices can shine, and most brewers use some crystal malt to produce a golden or ruddy color.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale has the subtle spicing I like and a faint caramel scent. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, spiced more aggressively, smells like gingerbread and root beer; it can handle a buttery blue cheese. Shipyard Brewing’s Pumpkinhead falls somewhere in the middle.
Good companions for these brews:
- Gouda and Gouda-style cheeses like Ireland’s Coolea (pictured above) and Dutch Leiden
- nutty alpine-style cheeses like Comté, Le Maréchal, Challerhocker and Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise
- aged sheep’s milk cheeses like Ossau-Iraty and Abbaye de Belloc
- triple-cream cheeses like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, Nettle Meadow Kunik and Brillat-Savarin
- mellow, buttery blue cheeses like Bayley Hazen Blue and Point Reyes Bay Blue (with the spicier brews)
- Cheddar and Cheddar-style cheeses like Beehive Cheese’s Barely Buzzed (pictured above)
Now is the moment for this all-American beer experience. Most pumpkin beers will vanish from stores by Thanksgiving.
If you enjoy malty beers, or just want to know more about them and the cheeses that go best with them, join me at the Cheese School of San Francisco on Tuesday, October 11, for “Oktoberfest Cheese and Beer.” Sample pumpkin ale, Oktoberfest lagers and several more of my favorite cool-weather brews with the cheeses they love.