Even George Washington liked a little pumpkin ale

EVERY AUTUMN, they roll out the pumpkin ale, which is a testament, I suppose, to mankind’s genetic impulse to take anything that grows and turn it into booze.

Sugar, rice, barley, potatoes, whatever – let’s cook it, ferment it and see what happens.

But pumpkins?

We’re talking jack-o’-lanterns, Charlie Brown and Linus, over the river and through the woods to your grandmother’s Thanksgiving pie. What kind of sick puppy came up with the idea of defiling an innocent melon with demon alcohol?

Would you believe George Washington?

That’s the story from Bill Owens, the former brewer who gets credit for reviving pumpkin ale almost 20 years ago.

“I was reading in a brewing book that Washington used squash in his mash,” Owens told me in a phone conversation this week. “I thought it was a great idea. ”

It was 1985, the early days of the American microbrew revolution. Adventurous young brewers, throwing off the shackles of 50 years of industrial lager monotony, were boldly experimenting with all kinds of ingredients.

Owens, who would become an icon in the craft beer movement, was running Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, Calif.

He tried out a batch of ale with roasted pumpkins, and it tasted, well, like crap.

“There was no flavor,” Owens said. “If you think about it, pumpkin is basically a neutral starch that converts to sugar. Even if you cook it, there’s no real flavor there.”

What it was missing, he said, was all the good stuff your mom adds to her pumpkin pie recipe: cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

“So I walked to the grocery story across the street, picked up a can of pumpkin pie spices, brought it back and put it in a coffee pot and percolated a gallon of pumpkin pie juice.

“Voila, real pumpkin flavor!”

Even with a full-bodied taste, it might’ve been a one-time curiosity, disappearing into history with the likes of vanilla porter or gruit. After all, George Washington notwithstanding, America hasn’t exactly experienced a long-standing pumpkin ale tradition.

But somehow Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale caught on. By 1988, the brewery was bottling it for national distribution; today, it’s the brewery’s best-known beer. (Another of Buffalo Bill’s older favorites, Alimony Ale – “the bitterest beer in America” – is no longer bottled.)

Owens left the brewery a couple years ago, but his pumpkin ale survives.

According to Buffalo Bill’s president Geoff Harries, the company this year produced about 60,000 cases, brewed and bottled at Portland Brewing.

“It’s a fun product for the season,” Harries said, explaining its popularity. “Anybody from Martha Stewart readers to, really, a cross-section of America, will enjoy it. It fits well for the season.”

Over the past 20 years, dozens of other breweries – from Dogfish Head in Delaware to Coors in Colorado – copied Owens’ original brew, introducing their own peculiar versions. The BeerAdvocate.Com lists more than 40 different pumpkin ales brewed across America.

Why has pumpkin ale remained so popular?

“Maybe there’s something subconscious about mom and homemade pie,” said Owens, who got out of the brewery business a couple of years ago. “Our memory banks go back to childhood, the holidays, our family. Something about pumpkin pie clicks. It’s in the deepest roots in our subconscious.”

 Gourd help us

So, how’s this stuff taste? Many beer-drinkers – especially those who aren’t fans of non-traditional ingredients – will find pumpkin ales smell better than they taste.

Matt Guyer of the Beer Yard (218 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne) broke open a sixpack of pumpkin brews for me last week. Some quick notes:

  1. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale: Gorgeous sparkling copper color, full pumpkin flavor.
  2. Post Road Pumpkin Ale: Decent spice. After the swallow, you’ll find the hops. From Brooklyn Brewing.
  3. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale: Bitter, heavily hopped, huge in-your-face aroma but only a small spice taste.
  4. Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale: Decent aroma, well-rounded flavor and big (7 percent alcohol).
  5. Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale:The spices aren’t noticeable till you let this one warm up a few minutes. From Coors.
  6. Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale: A wheat brew, this is the spiciest I tasted; sweet as a Tastykake, but not cloying.

 Beer radar

Since Owens left the beer business, he’s been concentrating on his career in photography. He also publishes an online newsletter on distilling.

For a free copy, contact him at distilling@aol.com . . . As for Buffalo Bill ‘s, look for a new seasonal brew next spring: Orange Blossom Cream Ale . . .

Bad-ass labels are the latest beer trend. Arrogant Bastard from California’s Stone Brewing proclaims it’s “an aggressive beer . . . you probably won’t like.” Dirty Bastard is a scotch ale from Grand Rapids, Mich. Old Engine Oil from Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland is aged six months in single malt whiskey casks. La Terrible, from Canada’s Unibroue, is coffeelike, with 10.5 percent alcohol . . .

Meanwhile, Sam Adams Chocolate Bock, with chocolate from truffle-maker Scharffen Berger, probably tastes a lot better than it sounds . . . Sam Adams Boston Lager wasn’t doing so well when the Red Sox visited Yankee Stadium this week, according to the New York Post. “We put some Sam Adams out to be hospitable,” a bartender at the Stadium Pub said. “I sold three” . . .

The Times of London reports a recent Campaign for Real Ale beer festival committed the unthinkable: It ran out of beer halfway through the event. An official from the local tourist board reportedly had to go run out and buy wine to keep the guests happy . . . In Munich, Oktoberfest visitors drained 6.1 million liters of beer in two weeks, or about the average weekend consumption at a Drexel frat house . . .

Last column, I wrote that – considering the lack of alcohol – commenting on the quality of near beer was a waste of time. Maybe I was a bit hasty. Turns out Miller Brewing has issued a recall on 12-packs of Sharp’s N.A. The problem? They contain real beer . . .

 Attention Toto

Joe Sixpack will be the featured guest at this weekend’s Midwest Beerfest in lovely Wichita, Kan. If you’re in the area (or if you can don’t mind driving 1,400 miles for a beer), stop by for my chat at tonight’s World Beer Dinner at the Hyatt Regency. The event is sponsored by the American Institute of Wine & Food, so I’ll be preaching to the sinners.

Tomorrow’s festival features more than 200 beers. I’ll conduct the world’s most unfair beer tasting, matching hand-crafted micros against factory-made megabrews. Predicted blowout of the day: New Belgium 1554 Brussels Black Ale vs. Beck’s Dark.

 Calendar

Tomorrow: Great Eastern Invitational Microbrewer’s Festival at Stoudt’s Brewing (Route 272, Adamstown, Pa.), with beers from 20 regional breweries. Tix: $24. Info: 717-484-4386.

Thursday: Oktoberfest at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats (320 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del.). German-style food and Dogfish Head beer, proceeds go to the Lower Delaware Autism Foundation. Tix: $25. Info: 302-226-BREW.

Oktoberfest promo at O’Neal’s Pub (611 S. 3rd St., near South Street), with Victory Fest drafts in a limited-edition, take-home one-litre Octoberfest glass. Info: 215-574-9495.

Oct. 28: Beer dinner at Brandywine Brewing Co. (3801 Kennet Pike, Greenville, Del.), with brewmaster Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing. Oliver will pair his brews with beers from the award-winning Freeminer Brewery of Britain, served with a menu by Brandywine chef Thom McMullen. Tix: $85, including an autographed copy of Oliver’s book, “The Brewmasters Table.” Info: 302-655-8000.

Oct. 29: Twenty-fourth anniversary party at O’Neal’s Pub. Beer bar rolls back the prices to 1979. No cover. Info: 215-574-9495.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Dominion Stout.

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