From Colonial Swill to Craft Craze: The History of Pumpkin Beer

Brooklyn Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery

Laced with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and other spices more suited for a pie than a pint, pumpkin ales have come to define the flavor of fall for beer lovers in recent years (even if they begin popping up in bars and liquor stores as early as August). While these gourd-infused brews are now a part of the estimated $600 million pumpkin spice industry, they actually have roots in a lowly colonial-era drink that was concocted more out of necessity than for flavor.

The unceremonious origins of pumpkin beer

Starvation was a looming threat for the New England colonists in the 17th century. Shortages of favorites like wheat and barley meant many families, especially the poor, needed to find a tough, versatile crop that was easy to grow and could survive the bitter Northeast winters. Pumpkins, it turns out, fit the bill perfectly.

“When [the first colonists in New England] come over here, they want to have their European fare, their European food, but they can't grow them yet,” Cindy Ott, associate professor of history and museum studies at the University of Delaware and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, tells Mental Floss. “So they rely on the pumpkin because it’s prolific [and] grows like a weed.”

Families could roast and eat pumpkin flesh, snack on a handful of seeds, or mash the whole thing together with butter and spices. For some, the fact that pumpkins made up the overwhelming bulk of their diet was enough to inspire tongue-in-cheek poetry with derisive lines like, “We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undoon.”

But there was another European staple that pumpkins were about to pinch-hit for in North America: beer.

As Ott points out, beer in the 17th century was a cleaner, more hygienic alternative to the water available to the colonists. Little Visuals, Pexels// Public Domain

Without the grains available to make a proper ale, the colonists discovered they could use pumpkins as a cheap, fermentable filler, along with molasses, bran, corn, and other ingredients the average family could scavenge. These early pumpkin ales did the job—but they became known as a drink strictly for the peasants who couldn't get their hands on the real stuff.

“[Colonists] rely on the pumpkin as this cheap substitute, and it gets them through difficult times,” Ott says. “But no one wants it. It’s really like the beer of last resort.” In her book, Ott writes that the flavor was described as having a “slight twang” when compared to more reputable ales of the time.

A handful of pumpkin beer recipes have survived over the years, including these 1771 instructions for “pompion ale” from the American Philosophical Society:

Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough 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 liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.

Over time, as farming practices improved and better ingredients and brewing techniques popped up, the pumpkin ales of the colonies all but disappeared. That is, until the crop took on a whole new meaning centuries later.

The forgotten ale gets a craft makeover

In 1985, Bill Owens, owner of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward, California, supposedly came across details of a pumpkin beer that George Washington was known to brew. Owens—a craft beer pioneer known for his farming acumen and particular choice of ingredients (like sourcing specific hops from Tasmania)—wanted to try a more modern take on the style. His version called for pumpkins to be roasted in his pizza oven and thrown into the brewery’s standard amber ale.

To give the normally mild flavor of pumpkin a bit more oomph, and to move the beer even further away from the original recipes, the brewery added spices like nutmeg and cloves. Today, Buffalo Bill’s Original Pumpkin Ale is considered the world’s first modern take on the style—though it didn’t catch on with everyone immediately.

Paul S., Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

“I think for the longest time, we were sort of the joke,” Geoff Harries, who worked on those early batches and now serves as the current CEO and master brewer at Buffalo Bill’s, tells Mental Floss. “Even people like Anheuser-Busch came out with commercials making fun of all of us making pumpkin [beers] or something unique.”

Big breweries may have shied away initially, but the burgeoning craft movement embraced the offbeat flavors a pumpkin ale had to offer—at one point, Owens even sold the recipe for the beer in a craft brewer's trade magazine he published. Within a few years, new brewers were creating their own take on the style, including Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, whose first batch of the company's famed Post Road Pumpkin Ale called for 100 five-pound cans of pumpkin purée.

“I think that one reason our beer remains popular is its subtlety,” Oliver tells Mental Floss. “It’s not sweet or over-spiced and it still tastes like a beer ... a beer with 'seasonal pumpkin overtones.'”

By 2014, at the peak of the trend, pumpkin beer sales had grown 1500 percent over the previous 10 years. Today, there are more than 1800 different pumpkin beers listed on BeerAdvocate.com, a digital encyclopedia of suds. Many of those ales even come from the world's largest brewing titans, including a few from Anheuser-Busch, proving that putting a little pumpkin in your beer is no longer a fringe trend or an ale of last resort.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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A Short, Sweet History of Candy Corn

Love it or hate it, candy corn is here to stay.
Love it or hate it, candy corn is here to stay.
Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Depending on which survey you happen to be looking at, candy corn is either the best or the worst Halloween candy ever created. If that proves anything, it’s that the tricolor treat is extremely polarizing. But whether you consider candy corn a confectionery abomination or the sweetest part of the spooky season, you can’t deny that it’s an integral part of the holiday—and it’s been around for nearly 150 years.

On this episode of Food History, Mental Floss’s Justin Dodd is tracing candy corn’s long, storied existence all the way back to the 1880s, when confectioner George Renninger started molding buttercream into different shapes—including corn kernels, which he tossed at actual chickens to see if it would fool them. His white-, orange-, and yellow-striped snack eventually caught the attention of Goelitz Confectionery Company (now Jelly Belly), which started mass-producing what was then sometimes called “chicken feed” rather than “candy corn.”

But what exactly is candy corn? Why do we associate it with Halloween? And will it ever disappear? Find answers to these questions and more in the video below.

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