I have to admit that I'd never even heard of pumpkin beers until after Starbucks injected the Pumpkin Spice Latte craze into the marketplace a few years ago, which generally prejudiced me against the whole idea on moral grounds.
In an industry as hip as craft beer, if you simply ignore bad trends, they won't linger, but jack-o-lantern brews seemed to return every year like the Headless Horseman, and I got very Ichabod Crane about avoiding them. As it turns out, I was completely wrong about pumpkin beer being trendy. It's actually very traditional. On the other hand, so are witch hunts.
According to the marketing department of the Brooklyn Brewery (I know this because it's printed neatly on every bottle of their Post Road Pumpkin Ale): "In the 18th Century, colonial American Brewers brewed wonderful and interesting ales using local ingredients. Barley was the favored ingredient, but pumpkins were favored by brewers." As marketing copy goes, that's just terrible, but it's more or less accurate.
The real question at hand, of course, isn't historical; it's "How does this stuff taste?" As it turns out, not as bad as I'd feared. It wasn't heavy, like stouts, and was mildly flavored. Post Road is one of the few pumpkin-flavored brews to use actual pumpkins in the brewing process, something that I understand is a frightful pain in the neck. Even so, I can't say it really tasted like a pumpkin. The flavors were more pumpkin pie spices: ginger, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon.
Back in 1801, Samuel Stearns mentions pumpkin beer in his The American Herbal; or Materia Medica (because back then you said things in Latin if you wanted to be taken seriously, as opposed to adding a Power Point graph). Our colonial forebears were forced to be clever, mainly because their lives literally depended on it. Pumpkins, unknown in Europe prior to the Atlantic exchange, were readily available in the New World, while malt was not. People in desperate need of a stiff drink will ferment literally anything with sugar in it. This attitude is best summed up in what scholars believe was America's first folk song, penned in 1643:
For we can make liquor, to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut tree chips
Well, let's hope it never comes down to tree bark beer again, and we can just stick with pumpkins for the moment. As cross-Atlantic trade developed, malt became more readily available, and pumpkin beer became the sort of thing rustic boobs drank because, evidently, there have always been beer-snobs. Pumpkin beer made a comeback during a period of nostalgia for colonial days in the 1840s and 1850s, when it was considered retro. Then the Republic blew up and the Civil War happened, and that was it for pumpkin beer for a while.
The next time we saw the stuff was in the micro-brew wave of the 1980s. Buffalo Bill's Brewery made an Original Pumpkin Ale — allegedly brewed from a recipe of George Washington's.
Now, pumpkin beers have become a perennial fall favorite, even though, as I mentioned, most aren't really brewed with pumpkins. The Jack-O Traveler Pumpkin Shandy, for example, is a wheat beer — lighter, with more of that pumpkin pie spice. For my money, it just tasted like a "flavored" beer and left a lingering aftertaste that could only be removed with that other most American of drinks: bourbon. Which is exactly what I was trying to avoid by drinking pumpkin ales in the first place. In sum, pumpkin brews are not for me.
But, that said, let's end on a high note: A chemist friend tells me that there is some scientific evidence that pumpkin spice acts as an aphrodisiac. What you do with that dubious bit of intelligence is your own business.