The pumpkin madness that autumn brings lasts just a few short months, but there's still plenty of time to make and enjoy a delicious homebrewed Pumpkin Ale. Brewers have been using pumpkin in beer for a long time, and the list of commercial versions gets longer every year. But with no clear defined style, and limitless spicing choices, pumpkin ale is a fun opportunity for beginning and experienced brewers alike to flex their creative recipe skills.
There's no defined base style for a pumpkin beer. You can start with an amber, pale, wheat, porter, stout or any other style, and simply add pumpkin and spices. Really, it's that easy. The only essential rule of thumb is to start with a recipe that isn't very hoppy, and limit the amount of flavor and aroma hops. Hop additions for all my pumpkin ales typically consist of a single 1/2 to 1 ounce addition at 60 minutes, and nothing more. This keeps the hop flavors and aromas from getting muddled and confused with the pumpkin pie spices.
The base recipe I used this year is probably the most common: a simple amber ale. It was an extract batch, so I used light dry malt extract, a pound of crystal 20L, and a pinch of chocolate malt. Nothing fancy, and it allows the squash and spice to shine.
Selecting a pumpkin for beer is the same as selecting a good pumpkin for making a pie. Ignore the large, carving pumpkins and select a smaller variety that is specified for pie making. Or, if you're like me, skip the pumpkin selection altogether and pick up a can of your favorite 100% natural canned pumpkin. Be sure to use a canned pumpkin that is completely free of preservatives, otherwise it may cause issues with fermentation later down the road. Libby's pumpkinworks fine, as does the organic Farmer's Market brand that's sold at Whole Foods. How much pumpkin should you use? It's up to you. One pound of pumpkin for 5 gallons of beer is the bare minimum needed to impart character, while some flavor-heavy beers can have 5 pounds for a 5 gallon batch.
Methods for adding pumpkin to beer vary widely, and professional brewers and homebrewers will offer all sorts of different advice, ranging from adding the pumpkin to the boil or the mash or even tossing it into the carboy after fermentation is complete. Many people even swear that the best pumpkin beer is made without any pumpkin at all, and advise only using pielike spices. While there may be some good pumpkin-free brews out there, to me it seems like a creative cop out. Instead, I see the lack of consensus as an opportunity for homebrewers to experiment with different techniques to maximize the potential of the pumpkin.
One thing that most brewers agree on is that the flavors come out the best if the pumpkin is cooked and caramelized. Whether you're chopping and mashing the pumpkin yourself, or you get it out of the can, it should be spread in a thin pan and baked for at least 60 minutes at 350°F. This will allow the sugars to start to cook, and give the beer the pumpkiny character that we're aiming for.
Spices can make or break this style. You have to add some spice to get the flavor that people will be looking for, but it is way too easy to go over the top and make the beer undrinkable. I've always used the quick way and gone with McCormick's Pumpkin Pie Spice. It may not be the most original, but it gives the flavor that everyone is familiar with. I add one teaspoon in the last five minutes of the boil of a five gallon batch to give a noticeable, but not overpowering flavor. It's a good idea to start with a small amount of spice and add more later if needed. If it comes time to bottle and you don't think there's enough flavor (which almost never happens), you can easily add more spices to the bottling bucket.
Other recipes may call for a more creative blend of spices. Nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and ginger are the common additions. This year, I even added 14 ounces of dark maple syrup to my recipe, which gave a fantastic rich flavor to balance the pumpkin pie spice. If you have a favorite blend of spices that you like to add to pumpkin pie, you can't really go wrong putting it in your beer. Just stick to no more than 1 teaspoon of dry spice for 5 gallons of beer until you have the chance to taste and make adjustments.