Pumpkin Beer

Pumpkins were a part of colonial beer making as a malt substitute. Only in the 1980s did pumpkin beers become the pumpkin spice flavored beers we know today.

Pumpkins have had two lives in beer making history – colonial and modern. Native to the Americas pumpkins are fairly easy to grow and a great food source. There is documented evidence of humans cultivating pumpkins since at least 5,500 BCE. When European colonists arrived in the 16th century they learned to use pumpkins as food, eventually hitting upon the idea of using them to make beer.

When you make beer, malt gives the process the sugars needed for fermentation to produce alcohol. Malt is grain that has been soaked, germinated, & dried. Early colonists had a difficult time staying alive let alone having the ability to produce reliable harvests of grains for beer. Necessity being the mother of invention they turned to the pumpkin and used the meat of the pumpkin to produce the sugars they needed for fermentation.

While they were initially used out of necessity, pumpkins continued to be used to make beer throughout the 18th century long after colonists were growing grain. Pumpkins were cheap and grown everywhere which made them hard to resist. That said pumpkin beer was a drink of the colonies – Europe, which had affordable sources of grain, had no interest in making beer from pumpkins. After more than 200 years pumpkin-based beer began to decline in the early 19th century as grains in America became more affordable.

Pumpkins have been grown in the Americas as a food source for thousands of years. Eventually European colonists realized they could make beer with them.

Pumpkin Spice Pumpkin Beer

Our modern concept of pumpkin beer is more inline with the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) and the pumpkin spice craze of the early 2000s – it’s about the flavor of pumpkin pie rather than using pumpkins as a malt substitute.

In 1986 the California brewpub Buffalo Bill’s Brewery (the first brewpub in America) was inspired to brew one of George Washington’s beer recipes that called for pumpkins instead of malt. After trying it however they found the taste less inspiring. So instead they created a syrup using traditional pumpkin pie spices and added it as flavoring. This was the first modern pumpkin beer.

Today pumpkin beers are an autumnal tradition with hundreds of options. Like other pumpkin flavored foods, some pumpkin beers contain real pumpkin while others do not, but one common characteristic is they all tend to taste like the spices of pumpkin pie.

Bock Beer / Goat Beer

The German beer whose name is a pun.

In the 14th century the northern town of Einbeck, Germany was producing some great tasting beer with higher alcohol content than typical lagers. The beer was brewed by individual households (in citizen brew houses) but the town owned all of the beer making equipment and hired hundreds of master brewers. This helped maintain a consistently high-quality product throughout town. As Einbeck joined the Hanseatic League they exported their beer around Europe and the popularity of their beer grew. In 1521 Martin Luther said that “The best drink anyone knows is called Einbecker beer” and later served it at his wedding.

In the early 17th century the master brewer Elias Pichler was lured down from Einbeck to Munich by Duke Maximilian to help the Bavarians make the Einbeck beer, or “Ainpöckisch bier”. The Bavarians changed the name a bit and with their southern pronunciation Ainpöckisch bier became “Oanpock bier” which was eventually shortened to just “Bock bier”. Soon the Einbeck style of beer was known by the name created by the brewers in the south.

a collection of bock imagery
Goat imagery has been tied to bock beer for years.

The Goat

As the centuries progressed bock beer posters, signs, and bottle labels tended to have a common visual motif – the image of a goat. No other style of beer has had such a consistently universal visual element. Goats have been used as imagery for bock beer across breweries, across time, and across countries. The reason is that “bock” in German means “male goat” (among other things). So Einbeck could be “ein bock” or “a goat”. Goats selling bock beer is a visual pun. It’s a multi-century dad joke.

Added info: there are different styles of bock beer including Maibock which is a seasonal beer made for the month of May (hence the name, “May bock”). The Sly Fox Brewery in Pennsylvania hosts an annual goat race every Spring where each year’s Maibock is named for the winning goat.

Also Doppelbock (“double bock”) is an even stronger bock brewed for Lent and the strong beer season.

Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Season)

Munich’s strong beer season began as a work-around to Lenten fasting.

During the Lenten season leading up to Easter, the German monks of the Neudeck ob der Au Monastery would fast. While they were forbidden from eating solid food they were allowed to drink beer. “Liquid bread wouldn’t break the fast” was the idea – but they didn’t drink just any beer. The monks created the nutritionally-rich, and high in alcohol, doppelbock Salvator beer for the Lenten season. First brewed in 1629, the beer’s name of Salvator comes from “Sankt Vater”, or “Saint Father”, essentially meaning “Holy Father beer.” This beer was not only the start of the Paulaner Brewery but it was also the origin of Starkbierzeit, or “strong beer season.”

Strong Beer Season

Not as big or as well known as Oktoberfest, Starkbierzeit is the multi-week strong beer festival of Munich. While Oktoberfest beers have an alcohol content around 6%, all of the Starkbierzeit beers have a minimum alcohol volume of 7.5%. In the lead up to Easter, breweries around Munich release special high-alcohol beers for the season and host parties in beer halls. There’s music, dancing, people dressed in traditional tracht – it’s like a Lenten smaller-scale decentralized Oktoberfest … fueled by high-alcohol beer.

Irish “Pub In A Box”

As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.

Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”. 

Pub in a Box

Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.

Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.

Fadó in Chicago, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Celtic” style.
Mandy’s Apothecary in Moscow, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Shop” style.

The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?

An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.

The Wild Rover in Barcelona features framed photos of random Irish people, used purely as decoration.

Better than nothing

To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.

As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.

Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.