Walk into a London pub demanding pumpkin beer, and there’s a high chance you’ll be met with a blank look. Some bar staff will take their bemusement even further, assuming that you’re attempting to play a practical joke on them. Trust us, we’ve experienced this several times over the last few weeks.
This is not the case in the USA, where pumpkin beer is well established, at least in craft beer outlets in the autumn months. In colonial times, Americans started using pumpkins (a native plant) to make their brews because they were more readily available than malted grains at that time. The tipple fell out of popularity in the 19th century, but was somewhat revived in the 1980s — although these ‘new’ beers tended to be more focussed on the use of flavourings to make them taste like pumpkin pie, rather than fermenting the beer from pumpkins themselves. Pumpkin beers now divide opinion, often due to an overuse of sweet spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and so on) — although some of the more recent pumpkin brews have been more subtle and well-balanced in flavour.
Despite the relative rarity of pumpkin beer in the UK, because the craft beer scene over here takes much of its inspiration from transatlantic brewing trends, the drink can still be found in London if you know where to look. And a handful of London breweries are crafting it theselves.
London-brewed pumpkin beer
Some of the London brewers we've spoken to are giddily excited about making pumpkin beer (and have some wacky ways of serving it, as you'll read below). Others have have said 'nope, but maybe next year', suggesting the trend is growing. And then there are those who have said — and we quote — "I can promise you on my mother’s ashes that I will never, ever make a pumpkin beer."
A couple of these pumpkin beers are reprisals from 2013: London Fields Brewery is once again brewing its Bootlegger Pumpkin Ale. They use real pumpkin, warming autumnal spices (think cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice), sweeten the brew slightly with honey and maple syrup, then add a German bittering hop for flavour. It has a sweet malty body and a warm auburn glow (and with an ABV of 6%, it'll make you glow too). Bootlegger Pumpkin Ale is being launched on 30 October in the London Fields Taproom, fancy dress and all. Beavertown's Stingy Jack is back on the scene following a successful 2013 outing. The beer is made with maple syrup, brown sugar, cardamom, nutmeg, crystalised ginger, clove and cinnamon, and is named after a fella who was barred from heaven, due to being a deceitful, tight-fisted drunk. According to its brewers, it's "the best damn pumpkin ale you will ever sup on".
What of the 2014 pumpkin debuts? Camden Town Brewery is concocting a Camden Pumpkin Spiced Lager. This one's been quite the community effort: every staff member at the brewery took a pumpkin home to bake, then brought the cooked flesh back in and chucked it into the brew. It's launching the pumpkin lager with a party at their Brewery Bar on 30 October.
Belleville Brewing Co., from Battersea way, is releasing Trick or Treat ("Sorry! No room for the wool of bat or toe of frog", they say). And maybe most excitingly of all, One Mile End has brewed a few kegs and casks of Pumpkin PIE.P.A (we LOVE a good ale pun), most of which will be sold in its brew pub, The White Hart. The beer has an ABV of 4.2%, is slightly sweet and very fragrant. It's crafted from four giant roasted iron bar pumpkins, mashed in with marris otter hops and malted oats. Pumpkin pie spice mixes and orange peel are then added towards the end of the boil. Some of the brew will be conditioned for 12 hours inside another huge, scooped-out squash, which will be plonked on the bar and tapped on 24 October. Says brewer Simon McCabe: "Expect a great success or a viral fail video as pumpkin explodes over bar staff."
That's all we could find from London brewers this year, although we bet in 2015 there'll be twice as many pumpkin beers. Of course if you know a brewer personally, you might be lucky enough to get in on a mini batch of pumpkin goodness. For example, we heard one of the brewers at Sambrook's (one of our more straight-laced breweries) last year, created a batch of pumpkin saison — surely a brew any self-respecting hipster would be proud of.
Otherwise, there are many other pubs where you can sample pumpkin beers from other parts of the UK and from across the pond:
Places to drink pumpkin beer
Many boozers around London are stocking up on decent pumpkin beers. (We smell a pumpkin revolution).
Earl Haig Hall in Crouch End has the London Fields brew from 30 October.
The Rake in London Bridge has Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale. And just round the corner (and affiliated with The Rake) is Utobeer — that wonderful little Borough Market beer cage. They've got Brooklyn's and Flying Dog's pumpkin offerings for you to take home.
Euston Tap has Beavertown's Stingy Jack, as does the impeccable Stormbird in Camberwell, Duke's Brew & Que in Haggerston, and all the Craft Beer Co. pubs. We also noticed that the Craft Beer Co. in Leather Lane currently has a seemingly lunatic Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale courtesy of Hoppin' Frog, in Ohio (pictured).
The holy triumvirate of London BrewDogs (oh hang on, make that four) is now selling its own brew, namely Pumpkin Head Ale — a 5.1% brew which comes with a suitably oddball jack-o-lantern/Elizabeth I label (also pictured).
Dean Swift in Tower Bridge is stocking Belleville’s Trick or Treat, and we reckon it's worth asking for it at sister pubs The Old Red Cow (Barbican) and Hack and Hop (Fleet Street), as it's likely these will be selling it too, or at least something of the same ilk. Hagen & Hyde in Balham is selling Trick or Treat from 28 October. The annual Wandsworth Common Beer Festival (running from 29 October to 1 November) will also be serving Trick or Treat, according to the festival’s preliminary beer list, as well as a limited-availability pumpkin flesh ale from Downton Brewery (it's simply called Pumpkin Ale). The same Pumpkin Ale is available at Brixton's Dogstar from 29 October.
Holborn Whippet has gone "all out crazy" (their words), plumping for Sacred, a collaborative brew from Revolutions Brewing Company and Bexar County. It's a 4.5% butternut squash and sweet potato stout (not strictly pumpkin, but near enough, and probably two of your five-a-day) and will be on sale for £3.60 a pint from 31 October. The Old Red Lion in Kennington has gone crazier: it's serving Sacred one day earlier and 10p cheaper. Sheer madness.
The Queen's Head in King's Cross has Haunted Dream — a spiced pumpkin stout made with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, chocolate and vanilla, and brewed by Reading brewery Siren (we're big fans). Holborn Whippet is serving the same, from 30 October.
Ravensbourne Arms in Lewisham has The Ghoul by Wharfebank Brewery (ABV 4.5%, £3.50 a pint) from 30 October. It's dark-brown in hue and laced with cinnamon and maple syrup. With luck it'll last till the Sunday so you can quaff it alongside one of their exceptional roasts.
Note: By its very nature pumpkin beer is an ephemeral thing, and we can't guarantee the places we've mentioned above will have any left by the time you get there. However, you'd be extremely unlucky to try a couple of the pubs above and not find any pumpkin beer at all. The trick (or treat) is to ask for it. Don't be scared, now.