THIRTEEN YEARS AGO, Elysian Brewing Company’s Dick Cantwell flubbed a batch of imperial pumpkin ale he was brewing, having misdiagnosed the degree to which the squash would dilute his mash. He went on to nail the recipe, but what to do with the surplus beer? Why, throw a party, of course. Thus began the autumnal rite known as the Great Pumpkin Beer Festival—Elysian’s annual celebration of squash-enhanced seasonal beers.
Pumpkin beer dates back to colonial times, when settlers found themselves low on malt and so subbed in squash puree. It’s a brewing tradition that has historically belonged to the East Coast—breweries in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Delaware make some of the best-known examples. The beers are often malty affairs with little to no bitterness and spiced with pumpkin-pie seasonings: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice. But over the years, Elysian’s festival—which has grown to include more than 50 beers, about a quarter of which come from outside the Northwest—has inspired beer makers to test the conventions of the gourd genre.
“It’s a chance to show just how serious and ridiculous we can be,” says Cantwell. Along with his nine other pumpkin beers, he’s developed a new Mexican-themed ale flavored with pumpkin, cumin, cinnamon, guajillo chili, and epazote. He also commissioned Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing to make a pumpkin–sour cranberry mashup, and is collaborating with Tom Douglas Restaurants on a beer incorporating three varieties of gourd from the Prosser farm run by Douglas and his wife.
Don Spencer, brewmaster at the Silver City brewery in Bremerton, makes one of the festival’s most memorable beers, the Punk Rauchen. Spencer smokes pumpkin over applewood for six to eight hours, then combines it with pale barley malts to create a nutty, amber-hued lager he says people either love or hate. “That’s why the festival is so much fun,” says Spencer. “Everyone gets to do their own take.” If you can’t make it to Great Pumpkin, find whatever Punk Rauchen is left over on tap at Elysian or Silver City’s restaurant in Silverdale. But you might also consider calling up Spencer and encouraging him to smoke some more. As Dick Cantwell tells squash neophytes looking to create new brews: “You can’t possibly overestimate the popularity of pumpkin beer.”