Seasonal Creep: Pumpkin Amber Ale

Can you call it an Oktoberfest if you drink it in August?

Quick Link: Pumpkin Amber Ale Recipe

I love fall. There's snow dusting the mountains, leaves are changing colors, and holiday visits with friends and family are on the horizon. It's time for playoff baseball, last-chance barbecues, and - let's not forget - beer. Nothing says fall to me like a rich, spicy pumpkin ale.

Drop that same beer into a mid-summer get-together, though, and it can seem downright repugnant. So why were they on store shelves in July? Is there an advantage to releasing "seasonal" beers so far in advance of the actual seasons? Can you call it an Oktoberfest if you drink it in August? And what's a home brewer to do?

Seasonal Creep
For a busy commercial brewery, at least, the answer seems straightforward. "Seasonal Creep" benefits a brewery's bottom line in several ways. The first is a simple matter of brewhouse logistics. An empty fermenter does nothing to benefit the brewery; it's much better to brew the beer that will be needed next, making the fermenter available that much sooner for the "next" next beer, and so on. This is especially important in smaller breweries, where one or two batches of beer can constitute an entire seasonal release.

Another factor that must be acknowledged is novelty. Craft beer drinkers in the US suffer from an embarrassment of riches - there are so many examples of popular seasonal styles that one would be hard-pressed to try them all before the next round of seasonals hits shelves. The first brand to make it to retailers will be the first one purchased; being late to market could mean that a brewery is stuck with more product than it can sell. And unlike a brewery's core brands, excess seasonal beers generally need to be sold at steep discounts, or dumped outright.

Brewing Seasonals at Home
So it makes sense for a commercial brewery to get a head start on the seasons; fair enough. The great advantage of home brewing, though, is that we can brew exactly what we want, exactly when we want. I do think that some notice should be given to the traditional brewing seasons, even if they are ultimately ignored. After all, many of the styles we know and love today are the result of centuries of adaptation to the preferences of beer drinkers. Imperial stouts are generally served during the winter months, not because some brewer declared that they should be, but simply because they are most amenable to cold weather. That said, how should we decide when to brew our beers?

Fermentation of an average-gravity ale will generally be complete in just 3-5 days. Allowing a few extra days for conditioning in the fermenter, and two weeks in packaging to carbonate and settle, yields a total "turnaround time" of about three weeks. This is a good rule of thumb for planning a brewing schedule, though of course it should be adjusted to account for the conditions specific to your brewery. Lagers and high-gravity beers will necessitate more time in both fermentation and conditioning; for an average-gravity lager I like to allow for a full month of lagering time, and high-gravity lagers can benefit from two months or more. Broadly speaking, a little extra storage time won't hurt provided the beer is stored cool. Beers with significant hop presence are one exception; hop flavor and aroma tend to drop off significantly over time.

The chart below gives an approximate timeline for when some common seasonal beers are brewed and enjoyed. (If you live in the southern hemisphere, shift everything six months.) A pumpkin ale, for example, will probably be turned around in 3-4 weeks, depending on gravity, so it would need to be brewed sometime during late September or early October in order to be ready for Halloween. A Maibock, on the other hand, is a high-gravity lager, and would need to be brewed several months prior to a traditional May tapping. A chart like this can be an excellent planning tool in the brewery. Imagine that each row represents a fermenter - we can see at a glance that only three are required, and that with four fermenters many more batches could be brewed. We can also more effectively stagger brew days to take advantage of fresh yeast from a previous fermentation.

Fall Brewing Schedule

See our HomeBrewing Calendar for a more complete list of beer styles.

Brewing Pumpkin Beer
Enough theory. Let's get brewing! My personal favorite pumpkin beer recipe is based on a malty American-style amber ale. My objective was to create a "pumpkin pie in a glass" for the drinker, so I used a combination of Munich and biscuit malts to give an impression of graham cracker or pie crust. A small addition of extra-dark crystal malt from the UK lends some subtle dark fruits flavors, along with some residual sweetness to keep the beer from being too dry.

The pumpkin itself is incorporated during the mash. While pumpkin could also be added to the kettle or fermenter, it becomes such a sticky mess that I really like using the enzymes present in the mash to break it down. For that reason, I use a two-step mash schedule with a protein rest to ensure the pumpkin is fully utilized. If your mash tun is prone to sticking, a handful or two of rice hulls may be necessary. I use canned, pureed pumpkin simply because it's so much easier than dealing with a raw pumpkin. Truth be told, very little of the pumpkin flavor actually makes it into the finished beer, so I don't believe the source is all that important. The pumpkin can even be omitted entirely and the recipe will still yield an excellent "pumpkin beer".

"The true artistry of brewing this style is in the spices."

As far as intensity, I favor the middle of the road, relative to commercial examples. The spices should be at the forefront of the beer's palate, yet not be so intense that the other elements of the beer can no longer be identified. A prepared pumpkin pie spice blend can be used, but for my tastes most are far too reliant on cinnamon; I like to let the more subtle clove and nutmeg come into balance. Of course, if at all possible whole spices should be purchased and ground just before brewing.

I like to add the spices to the kettle post-boil using a stainless steel tea ball, then taste the wort every few minutes during the whirlpool. The spices can then be removed once the desired intensity is achieved. Bear in mind that the spice character will drop off somewhat during fermentation and conditioning. In addition to, or in place of, this approach, a spice extract can be made using a neutral spirit like vodka, and added to taste at packaging.

Happy fall, and happy brewing!

Pumpkin Amber Ale
Fruit Beer
TYPE All Grain
ABV: 4.7 %
OG: 1.054 SG
FG: 1.013 SG
SRM: 10.9 SRM
IBU's: 22.5 IBUs
Cals: 151.6 kcal/12oz
Batch Size: 5.00 gal
Boil Size: 7.78 gal
Boil Time: 60 mins
Efficiency: 72.00 %


Mash Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
48.33 oz Pumpkin (canned) (Mash 0.0 mins) Flavor 1 -
7 lbs 7.5 oz Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM) Grain 2 71.7 %
1 lbs 10.6 oz Munich Malt (9.0 SRM) Grain 3 15.9 %
10.3 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt - 60L (60.0 SRM) Grain 4 6.2 %
6.9 oz Biscuit Malt (23.0 SRM) Grain 5 4.1 %
3.4 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt -120L (120.0 SRM) Grain 6 2.1 %

Boil Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
0.45 oz Columbus (Tomahawk) [14.00 %] - Boil 60.0 min Hop 7 22.5 IBUs
0.88 oz Ginger Root (Boil 12.0 mins) Herb 8 -
0.15 oz Cinnamon Stick (Boil 5.0 mins) Spice 9 -
0.29 oz Cloves (Boil 0.0 mins) Spice 10 -
0.15 mg Nutmeg (whole, crushed) (Boil 0.0 mins) Spice 11 -

Fermentation Ingredients
Amt Name Type # %/IBU
1.0 pkg American Ale II (Wyeast Labs #1272) [124.21 ml] Yeast 12 -

Pitch yeast and begin fermentation at 18C (64F). Once gravity drops below 6P (1.025 SG), the temperature may be increased to 22C (72F). Rest warm for three days once terminal gravity is reached, then crash to 4C (39F) for three days before transferring.

Recipe designed using BeerSmith

A nuclear engineer by trade, Sean Terrill has been home brewing for over nine years, and professionally for three. He is the owner of Two Mile Brewing Company, a brewpub-in-planning in Leadville, CO. He recently contributed an article on Brewing with Chiles.

Sean holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue University in Nuclear Engineering.

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