Spotting the piles of pumpkins and pumpkin pies at the grocery store is a bit like seeing the first robin of spring. Those pumpkins signal that autumn is really here -- and in the beer world, that's echoed by the arrival of pumpkin beers.

When I was buying beer for the Beverages & More chain 20 years ago, hardly any of them were around. We'd buy an entire truckload of Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, and it would be gone in a few weeks. Now, pumpkin beers have come into their own.

Colonial origins

Pumpkin beer is not a new phenomenon. Its roots date back to colonial America. When early settlers first arrived, they found that barley didn't grow in New England, and they scrounged to find whatever they could use as a fermentable substitute -- a list that soon included pumpkins, artichokes, parsnips, persimmons, molasses and even spruce tips.

Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale
Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill's)

Once barley became more readily available, few brewers continued to brew with squash. The practice eventually died out -- until the microbrewery revolution. Today's modern pumpkin ales are still traditional barley and hop beers, but with pumpkin flavor added, unlike the old colonial versions. And many brewers add allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg, usually late in the boil, to give the beer its seasonal aromatics. The result is more like pumpkin pie beer.

One of the first modern versions was Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, which was first brewed by the Hayward brewpub about 1986. Hollister's long-gone San Andreas Brewing used to make an early pumpkin beer, too. But Buffalo Bill's is still going strong, although their ale is so popular now, they contract with a production brewery to keep up with the growing demand.

Other pumpkin beers to put on your fall shopping list -- because, of course, two pumpkin heads are better than one -- include Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale, Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale and Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale. Closer to home, there's Anderson Valley Fall Hornin' Pumpkin Ale, Almanac Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine and Hangar 24 Local Fields: Gourdgeous.

Pumpkin beer fests

Elysian and 21st Amendment’s newest collaboration beer is the He Said He Said, a play on the fact that neither Cantwell nor O’Sullivan could
Elysian and 21st Amendment's newest collaboration beer is the He Said He Said, a play on the fact that neither Cantwell nor O'Sullivan could agree on when they first met or where the idea to do a collaboration pumpkin beer came from. (21st Amendment)

Seattle's Elysian Brewing hosts a pumpkin beer festival each fall, creating as many as a dozen different pumpkins beers each year. The list includes The Great Pumpkin, Hop Squash and Mr. Yuck Sour Pumpkin Ale, not to mention one that's brewed and fermented inside an actual pumpkin.

This year, Elysian brewmaster Dick Cantwell came to San Francisco to create a pair of collaboration pumpkin beers with 21st Amendment brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan. The beer is currently available in a four-pack, dubbed "He Said, He Said." Neither Cantwell nor O'Sullivan can agree on when they first met or the origins of their collaboration pumpkin beer idea, so they named each beer He Said. One He Said is a Belgian-style tripel brewed with pumpkin and aromatics, including tarragon and galangal. The other He Said is a Baltic porter, also brewed with pumpkin and spices, such as Vietnamese cinnamon and ground caraway. They are 8.2 percent ABV.

Meanwhile in Half Moon Bay, home of the big Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, the star attractions include more than 3,000 tons of pumpkin goodness and a special beer created by Half Moon Bay Brewing. Mavericks Pumpkin Harvest Ale is a pale ale made with locally grown Sugar Pie pumpkins, roasted with a secret blend of spices. Several other pumpkin beers -- and other pumpkin-infused foods and drinks -- will be available during the festivities, which run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 19 and 20. Find details at www.miramarevents.com/pumpkinfest.

Contact Jay R. Brooks at BrooksOnBeer@gmail.com. Read more by Brooks at www.ibabuzz.com/bottomsup.