No Rests for the Wicked: Pumpkin Ale, Easy as Pie

Pumpkin ale is a seasonal American tradition strong enough to smash even the most cynical pumpkin-spice fatigue. It’s also fun to make—and drink, and share—at home.

Annie Johnson Dec 18, 2023 - 8 min read

No Rests for the Wicked: Pumpkin Ale, Easy as Pie Primary Image

My first gourd beer was the king of them all: the infamous Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Not only does Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, California, get credit for being the first modern brewpub in the United States—opened in 1983—but it also has a claim to brewing the first commercially available pumpkin ale a few years later. If you’re not familiar with the beer, it’s worth tracking down—or, for those in the know, well worth getting reacquainted.

Unfortunately, these days, we live in a world with pumpkin-spice fatigue. There are so many flavored or scented products out there now, especially once fall rolls around, that merely seeing the words “pumpkin spice” can lead to eye rolls and groans from pie-holes (see what I did there?). So much vitriol over two words! Poor pumpkins.

Thankfully, for those of us who still love them, pumpkin beers remain an annual tradition. What’s curious, though, is how many taste only of pumpkin-pie spices, often added with a heavy hand. Some remind me of potpourri, fall-scented candles, or air fresheners. Do those brewers even like pumpkin beer, or is it just an obligatory seasonal offering? (A brewer friend of mine actually named his Obligatory Pumpkin Ale. An Untappd search reveals that a few others had the same idea.)

In my opinion, it’s best when the flavor of the pumpkin itself shines through. Good news: We can make ours at home exactly how we like it—and it’s a fun style to tackle with extract or partial-mash brewing.


The Signature Ingredient

Pumpkins matter—the type you use should not be an afterthought. Go for the flavorful ones that bakers use; these are denser and sweeter. Skip the kind you carve for Halloween; those tend to be fibrous and not that easy to chop. (I’ve even known a few homebrewers who’ll hack up the family Jack-o’-lantern and throw it in a beer. I can’t think of a worse way to start than with a big, rotting gourd that every neighborhood dog, rat, and raccoon has had a chance to visit.)

If you’re starting with fresh pumpkins, good varieties include:

  • Cinderellas, which look just like Cinderella’s carriage
  • Sugar Pies, which are thin-skinned and sweet
  • Pink Bananas, which are (you guessed it) banana-shaped, with a slight curve and pinkish-orange skin.

All of these are flavorful and easy to work with. To process the pumpkins, we start by roasting them. Just preheat your oven to 345°F (174°C), chop up the pumpkins into large chunks, and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 45 minutes, then remove them, allow them to cool, and separate the flesh from the skins. Add the flesh to a blender or food processor and blitz until smooth—or, put them in a bowl and use a potato masher. My recipe calls for a good six pounds of puree. If you have extra, the puree freezes beautifully for future beers or pies.

Finally, if you’re not into processing a pumpkin into puree, you can also use store-bought canned pumpkin. The Libby’s brand is 100 percent pumpkin—no other squashes blended in—it’s easy to use, and you can find it in any American supermarket, especially around Thanksgiving and the holidays.


Nicer Spice

The usual suspects in a pumpkin pie–spice blend are allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. I avoid the pre-packaged blends; I prefer to use fresh spices and to have greater control over how much of those flavors and aromas end up in the beer.

Broadly, use a subtle hand. It’s easy to add too much and overpower the beer with spice. Those spices can also make the beer seem drier on the palate—especially cinnamon, which can be surprisingly tannic. Over the years, I’ve become a huge fan of Jamaican allspice, which all by its lonesome can bring the complexity we associate with those other spices. Toasting and coarsely cracking some dried allspice berries will add a vibrant edge to the beer.

A word on vanilla: After attending a seminar on brewing with fruit, led by Bret Kollmann Baker of Cincinnati’s Urban Artifact, I’ve been experimenting with adding a small amount of vanilla in some of my beers. There is something about fresh vanilla that brings out the richness of ripe fruit—and, hey, pumpkin is technically fruit. Although vanilla isn’t a typical pumpkin pie ingredient, just one-quarter of a bean in the secondary will really help draw out a pumpkin flavor that our brains associate with pie.

Now, About the Beer …

Sometimes pumpkin ales resemble the colors of pumpkins themselves, with some variation on coppery-orange, but there are also great ambers, porters, and stouts that hold the flavors well. The strength often hovers around 6 percent ABV, which feels just right for the fall.


When you’re going for a nice amber color and straightforward malt backbone, Munich brings a fuller richness than pale malt. I prefer the liquid Munich extract, which I find less messy to use than dried; when adding your extract, remember to switch off the heat to avoid scorching. You can even go with an amber or dark Munich extract, for deeper color and flavor. Steeping a small amount of roasted barley or dark crystal malt will also add color and depth.

For the hops, just a bit for balancing bitterness at the start of the boil works perfectly. For yeast, I like a neutral American or English strain that won’t interfere with the malt, pumpkin, and spice flavors.

Most of the brewing is straightforward and as easy as (don’t say it, Annie) pie. Sometime during the boil, you can toast your allspice in a dry pan, coarsely grind or crack the berries, and put them into a hop sock or tea ball. Drop it in with five minutes to go, and fish it out later before pitching your yeast.

After fermenting relatively cool for up to two weeks, you can add the vanilla bean for a day or two, sample the beer, and adjust the spicing to taste by steeping a bit more. When the flavor’s where you want it, remove the spices, and let the beer condition another five days or so before packaging.

Sometimes, I’ll brew another pumpkin beer later in the year—a rich stout—using the extra puree I froze when processing the pumpkins for the first one. Thankfully, pumpkin ales have become a tradition resilient enough to withstand the pumpkin-spice fatigue. I really enjoy them in the fall and winter months, sharing with friends and family on the various feasting and grazing days that these seasons provide.

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.