The Hophead: Pumpkin Ale Nailed in Brooklyn

beerbrawl25 pumpkin1 The Hophead: Pumpkin Ale Nailed in Brooklyn What: Pumpkin Ale

Where: Brooklyn

Why: Because it was the first weekend of fall, and someone tweeted something.

At 5:43 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, a New Yorker tweeted the following: “Anyone have a favorite pumpkin beer OR a favorite place in Brooklyn for drinking pumpkin beers?”

Two minutes later, the redoubtable CrankyKaplan re-tweeted that message, plus: “KILL ME NOW LORD GOD PLEASE.”

Indeed. Such are the fates of beerheads who pursue the more esoteric, heartier brews of fall or winter: the mercurial flavors, the complicated textures, the tastes defying speedily digestible descriptions. Toss in the history, and one skirts dangerously close to that thin purple line separating general discourse from discourse on wine. It can turn insufferable, pretentious even. “Bouquet” and “hints of” getting batted around. That sort of thing. 

This shouldn’t be. Pumpkin ale—hell, it’s as American and earthy as apple pie or nuclear missiles. 

Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are all said to have brewed pumpkin ales; for the latter two, the pumpkins were most certainly grown on their Virginia estates. The American Philosophical Society, founded by Franklin decades before the Revolution, offers this recipe from 1771:  Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough and pressed as Apples. The expressed juice is to be boiled in a copper a considerable time and carefully skimmed that there may be no remains of the fibrous part of the pulp. After that intention is answered let the liquid be hopped culled fermented & casked as malt beer.”

The colonials likely used pumpkins as a substitute for malt barley. Times was tough, brewers did what they could with what they had in this outback afterthought of the British empire. Hops, pumpkin, maple syrup—those were probably the ingredients of America’s earliest pumpkin ales (and the hops maybe only maybe). The style remained a curiosity forever, rarely commercially produced, more the provence of the homebrewer down with the 18th-century goings-on at Mount Vernon, the guy in the tour group who meanders longer than most in the General’s kitchen.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, Calif., takes credit for reviving the style in the mid-1980s. The label on its pumpkin ale seasonal says “America’s Original,” so who’s to quibble? Pumpkin ale is ubiquitous now, though it can be hard to find, even in  Brooklyn.

Allow me.

THE 4TH AVENUE PUB (76 Fourth Avenue) had Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale on tap for $6 a pint last week. Like most pumpkin ales, it pours a dark copper color. It was the beer equivalent of mulled wine, at a boozy 8 percent alcohol per volume, and with a hint of cloves in, yes, the bouquet. The pub also had Sixpoint Pumpkin Brewster on tap, also for $6, straight out of BK: Sixpoint Craft Ales is headquartered on Van Dyke Street near the Red Hook docks; and it produces what could be the most drinkable pumpkin ale available in the borough. On top of the expected malty texture and spiciness, the Sixpoint pumpkin ale was also hoppy and effervescent, with a nutmeg aftertaste. It was summer meets fall.

But pumpkin ale’s supposed to be all fall.

At dba Brooklyn (113 North Seventh Street) another local was on tap (another $6): Southampton Pumpkin Ale from the Long Island brewery of the same name. Alas! Their offer proved weird—or just much too complex. It tasted by and large like your nondescript brown ale (a spot of Newcastle, anyone?) with some heavy-handed spicing that prompted one companion to describe the nutmeg and cinnamon hints as “disembodied,” and it tasted of pennies or packing peanuts, depending on what one spent one’s childhood putting in his or her mouth. Sigh.

The Gate (321 Fifth Avenue) had Dogfish Head Punkin Ale on tap for $6.50 a pint (see Burkhard Bilger’s late 2008 New Yorker profile of Dogfish founder Sam Calagione, an already-legendary treatise on so-called “extreme beers”). The Punkin Ale poured a tad brighter than the typical dark copper, and presented what I’ll call a fussy taste. Dogfish says it brews with just “pumpkin meat,” organic brown sugar and spices, but the beer seemed unable to make up its mind. The pumpkin meat was dwarfed by a generic and chalky brown-ale flavor, the spiciness locked in an indecisive pint-long match against what can only be described as a woody aroma, neither side seeming to give an inch…  Extreme? Yeah, but to what end?

Finally, at Sheep Station (149 Fourth Avenue), the mot juste. Greenport Harbor, a tiny brewery on the North Fork of Long Island, has apparently managed to put October in a glass. Its pumpkin ale, $6 a pint at Sheep Station, had a sharp, but not overpowering pumpkin taste, an evenly distributed spiciness that ended on the sweet side, and just a touch of bitterness reminiscent of Northern California’s hoppier pale ales. It was all there, folks: earlier evenings and later mornings, the Yanks in the World Series, Halloween, the Columbus Day Parade, crunchy leaves in the park, fresh apples, the first whispers of winter, down to the last dram, a perfect synthesis of the brewer’s art, sans gimmickry.

Goodgreatpumpkin ale found in Brooklyn.

AS FOR OUR INTREPID TWEETER called out by CrankyKaplan—that search, too, ended well. Caitlin Curran, a 28-year-old multimedia journalist recently transplanted from Cambridge, Mass., had simply and sincerely wanted to find a decent pumpkin ale in her adopted borough.

I caught up with her on email late last week (via Twitter, of course). I had recommended her search begin at the Gate. But she opted for elsewhere, to her delight. “I did go to Bar Great Harry (in Carroll Gardens),” she wrote, “and had two great pumpkin beers there—one was actually brewed with pumpkin, and the other was just brewed with pumpkin-type spices, according to the bartender.”

Ms. Curran liked the Arcadia Jaw Jacker Pumpkin the best. It’s $5 a pint at Bar Great Harry (280 Smith Street) and comes from a small craft brewery (aren’t they all?) in Battle Creek, Mich. “As you can see,” she concluded in her email, “I’m mildly obsessed with pumpkin beers. Also, wow, how surreal to be mentioned by CrankyKaplan.”

Indeed. Here’s a standing offer to M. Cranky: one pint of pumpkin ale in Brooklyn, any time of the day, with a gin chaser.

With reporting by Kat Stoeffel.


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tacitelli@observer.com and Twitter @tacitelli