4 Crucial Considerations When Homebrewing Pumpkin Beer
Pumpkin beers are a staple every year when October rolls around, so we thought we’d talk a bit about some of the best ways to brew one. It’s a fun and classic ingredient that’s been a part of our beer culture since colonial times, but what really makes a pumpkin beer?
Purists will tell you that it HAS to have pumpkin, and while I don’t disagree, some of the best pumpkin ales on the market have no more pumpkin than a pale ale! The spice profile of pumpkin beers in the last few years have really taken a lot of the hard labor out brewing one, and a nice pumpkin pie spice profile can make for a delicious beer!
Homebrewing is all about experimentation, and I really think that adding pumpkins can be done in a ton of different ways. Let’s talk about some of the best, tried and true ways to spice, prepare and pull off this fall phenomenon.
Smashing Pumpkins: Fresh Pumpkins vs Pumpkin Puree
I’m a huge fan of easy, and it doesn’t get much easier than regular old canned pumpkin pie puree. You can add it at any point, although I like to try to get it to dissolve in the mash water before I dough in, or right before I put in my extract if I’m not doing an all grain batch. I have read about and heard about some brewers that like to add it directly to the boil to preserve more pumpkin flavor and mouthfeel, and that’s a great idea, too!
The point is, with puree the hard part is already done. Just scoop it in and your civic duty to the pumpkin gods is complete! The only really bad part of this is you don’t get to choose what kind of pumpkin to add, it’s whatever the manufacturer uses in the puree, which takes away some of the fun, and maybe even some of the flavor.
Preparing pumpkins is a long, if not overly arduous, process. Some of the best tasting pumpkins out there are sugar pumpkins, small and sweet pumpkins that have a ton more flavor than your normal jack-o-lanterns. I have also heard that butternut squash makes a delicious ‘pumpkin’ as a pumpkin beer ingredient.
To prep your chosen pumpkin, start by halving and seeding them. You can get away with as much as 1 sugar pumpkin per gallon if you want to get crazy, and you’ll have to brew your recipe a few times to decide how much you really want to use. I would say start in the middle, maybe 3 sugar pumpkins or 2 butternut squash per 5 gallon recipe, then work your way up or down until you get your pumpkin content perfect.
After halving and seeding, cut your gourds up into easily bake-able pieces, say 6 inch strips or so so you can put them all on a cookie sheet and bake them into softness all at once. A common practice at this point is to cover them with brown sugar so that it bakes in and creates some delicious, sugary maillard flavors that carry over into your beer. This is a fantastic idea! It’s also worth trying with honey, or even coconut sugar, to get different flavors.
This baking part is probably the most integral part of using fresh pumpkin in your beer. 375° F for 2 hours or so will give you delicious, toasted sugar laden pumpkin bites that you can then add to your beer!
To Mash or Not to Mash: When Should I Add All of This Pumpkin??
Pumpkins are really just giant, starchy squash, sometimes with great faces carved into them. They aren’t so crazy starchy that you get a ton of sugar from them, but you can get a pretty good gravity bump when they are covered with caramelized sugar on top of what they already have. You still get a bit of a bump from the pumpkin puree.
When you add the pumpkin to the mash, the enzymatic activity will convert whatever starch that the enzymes can get to, even the pumpkin’s own. This is going to act a lot like adding flaked grains or rice in that you will get some simple sugar out of the other side and maybe even some extra protein to help with head formation and foam retention. All in all, the driving force on the flavor side will be that caramelization of pumpkin flesh and sugar. This is where using so much squash in a recipe comes in. Just like in many fruits, you need more to get that flavor to come out the other side of fermentation.
Another way to do it is to add it in the boil. This is going to concentrate some of the starchy character of the gourd, and can even contribute to a hazy end product, but not as much as you’d think. The idea with adding it into the boil is that you boil the actual pumpkin flavor out of the flesh and into the beer, which makes a kind of sense, as long as you have enough pumpkin. You will also lose some of the natural aromatics due to the heat. The easiest way is to do it brew in a bag style and float the pumpkin for your desired boil time. It seems like the best way to get all of the flavor is to add it in like hop additions, at 60, 30 10 and flame out. In theory, you can get a fuller range of flavor that way!
Of course you can add it in as a ‘dry hop’! The fresh, baked pumpkin will give you the best bang for your buck, given all of that yummy, super fermentable toasted sugar. This isn’t necessarily the ideal place for the pumpkin puree. It will mostly just fall to the bottom and you won’t get as much out of it, unless you toast and sugar it first
Keep in mind that using the fresh pumpkin with the baked sugar is going to add to the simple sugar content of your base beer and give a perception of dryness, so plan accordingly.
Nutmeg and cinnamon, pumpkin spice flavors, even ginger and allspice, are all very common spice additions in pumpkin beers. Does this mean you HAVE to add any or all of them? Absolutely not! In colonial times, pumpkin beers were common and spice free, and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that spices in a pumpkin beer actually became a thing. There’s also a lot to say about pumpkin-free pumpkin beers, like our Calabaza Loca ingredient kit, that rely on the spices alone to make that pumpkiny magic happen.
Again, the purists will say that a true pumpkin beer needs both, and maybe they’re right, but there’s a lot to be said about skipping a few hours of pumpkin prep when you’re in a rush! Regardless, the power of spices should not be overlooked, and if your goal is to make a pumpkin spice latte with alcohol and malt extract, well, there’s no better way!
I’m a huge fan of adding flavors, herbs and spices to anything, as those of you who read these articles know, and it’s all about finding the right flavors for the right beer, then adding them in the best way to maximize their flavors. Traditional pumpkin pie spice and mulling spices are easy to do, but a more custom profile may be in order for pumpkin beers.
First and foremost, vanilla. It needs to happen if you’re doing spices in your pumpkin beer. Vanilla has a way of bringing together the best of the spice profile, the pumpkin and the base beer. It smooths out the harsher characters of some spices, and brings it all to balance.
Other ideal spices are allspice, cinnamon, mace and ginger. These can all be easily balanced together, especially with the help of vanilla, and can help with a bright, earthy balance. You’ll have to play with how much to put in, and I recommend reading our Brewing with Herbs and Spices post for different and awesome ways to add them to your beer.
Try different combinations of spices, and choose the one that fits your beer the best.
Choosing a Base Beer
Deciding what kind of beer to add your pumpkin to is probably the most important part. Pumpkin Porter or Stout? Pumpkin Amber? Crisp pumpkin lager? You need to decide what your idea of a finished pumpkin beer should be, then work from that.
One thing that I’ve found true is that making a base beer with a slightly higher finishing gravity lends itself to tasting more pumpkin and/or spice. Having a little leftover sugar can help bring out the rest of these flavors you’re trying to achieve, and can help with the overall balance. Great ways to do this are by utilizing higher mash temperatures if you're brewing All Grain, and by choosing the right yeast strain for you chosen concoction.
Pale Ale Malts like Maris Otter and Belgian Pale Malt can go a long way toward adding that delicious malt character for all grain home brewers as well. Adding Munich malts to steep can have a similar effect for extract brewers. I’ve found that adding medium toasted specialty grains, like Crisp Caramel/Crystal 60° or Caramunich 3 can add a lot to helping toasted caramel flavors come through.
In the end, as with all beers, the name of the game is proper balance. Choose your base beer and yeast first, then decide what type of pumpkin you want to use, and adjust spice profiles from there. I personally prefer to add spices at the packaging - kegging or bottling - part of the process because it gives me the most control of the finished product.
If you're just getting started brewing pumpkin beers, or want to try brewing something different than what you usually do, try brewing our recipe kits, Calabaza Loca and Midnight Mercenary! Calabaza Loca has a classic spice profile and no pumpkin at all, although you can always add some! Midnight Mercenary is a more colonial style pumpkin beer with no spice profile, and you can always add some to that, too! Craft the perfect pumpkin beer for you!
Thank you all for reading! Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions below! We love to hear your thoughts! Cheers!