Pumpkin beers are simultaneously the most beloved and most reviled concoctions in the pantheon of seasonal brews. Folks either love 'em or hate 'em, and they do both with a passion. Witness this response to an internet query about what foods to pair with pumpkin beer: "I'd suggest another seasonal treat—candy corn, since candy corn is to real corn as pumpkin beer is to real beer."
But pumpkin beer can be an ideal pairing for some of our favorite autumn meals. There are, of course, a wide range of brews, though most tend to stick with amber-colored, malt-forward recipes, with prominent caramel and nutty flavors. Some of these beers are spiked with clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, and many amplify the pumpkin flavor with the addition of butternut (or other) squash. Others simply leave out the squash, letting spices alone give the impression of pumpkin pie. Pumpkin beers range from moderate 5% lagers to 10% behemoth ales, or bigger.
Want to plan a meal around your favorite pumpkin beer? Read on for my tips.
Pumpkin pie is the natural ending to the traditional fall feast of roasted fowl and trimmings. But with pumpkin beer you don't have to wait until the meal is done. The luscious caramel and brown sugar malt flavors at the center of most pumpkin beers is an excellent match for the browned skin on a roast turkey or duck. Earthy-sweet squash spices bring both complement and counterpoint to the herbal earthiness of stuffing.
I recommend beers that lean heavily on caramel flavors to make this pairing work. Schlafly Pumpkin Ale from the St. Louis Brewery is one of my absolute favorites. Southern Tier's Pumking is another good choice. It's a big beer at nearly 9% alcohol, but it's loaded with buttery caramel, hazelnut, and pumpkin pie spice. Jolly Pumpkin's La Parcela offers a unique pairing option with the leathery funk of Brettanomyces yeast strains. You won't taste much pumpkin in this most non-traditional of pumpkin ales, but you will get hints of caramel and spice that tie in well with the food.
If you're roasting up some root vegetables (with our without a bird) the earthy sweetness and nutmeg/allspice of pumpkin beer make it a wise choice for pairing. Try Sam Adams' small-batch release Fat Jack Double Pumpkin with rutabaga gratin made with a béchamel that includes a dash of allspice and nutmeg. The beer is heavy on nutmeg that will really pull out those background spicy flavors from the dish. New Holland's Ichabod Ale is another spicy option that would work well here.
Pumpkin is believed to have originated in Central America. The oldest pumpkin seeds were found in a Mexican tomb dating back 7000 years. The Aztecs are known to have used the gourd as both ritual offering and food. With all that pumpkin history, how can pumpkin beer not be a hit with the food flavors of the region?
The dusky, chocolate-tinged flavors of mole are a great match to some of the darker pumpkin beers. Tommyknocker Small Batch Pumpkin Ale is an unusual brown ale made with pumpkins and spice. It's got the caramel and pie spice, but with additional layers of gentle roast that make it a great match for any meaty mole dish.
For me, the arrival of the cool autumn breeze marks the beginning of chili season. And pumpkin beer is the perfect partner for a number of versions of this classic dish.
When I was growing up my mom made the chili recipe from the iconic, red-checked Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. Variations on that recipe are what I make to this day. It relies on heavy doses of cloves to give it an interesting, spicy kick. That unusual addition makes it play well with spicier pumpkin beers like Lakefront Pumpkin Lager. The beer has a zesty cinnamon aroma that's reminiscent of Red Hots candy and plenty of balancing caramel malt in the flavor. The crisp lager finish gives it some refreshing, palate-cleansing power. Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale also has spice that comes in strong in the finish, making it another good match for chili, whether you go for Kenji's recipe or another from your family tradition.
Let's not forget dessert. The flavors of pumpkin and spice are great with chocolate. Try Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale with cinnamon-spiced, super-dark chocolate truffles. This beer has it all: caramel, grain, cinnamon, and background flavors of cocoa.
If you're thinking of a creamier dessert, consider pairing Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale with a caramel flan like this one. This malty brew has nice brown-sugar flavors and the spice won't overpower your custard.
Are you dreaming up a pumpkin-beer based dinner party? What dishes would you include? Got a favorite pumpkin beer to recommend? Let us know in the comments. Want to brew your own beer to celebrate gourd season? Here's our homebrewing recipe.
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint
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