"Got it almost right," he says. "It's a little hoppier than I intended it to be; there's a fair amount of bitterness. We've got 80 pounds of Half Moon Bay pumpkins in there ... and next year we'll use more," he said.
Welcome to the latest New Wave craft beer: Pumpkin Ale. Since photojournalist-turned-brewer Bill Owens poured a whole gob of pumpkin pie spice into a batch of amber beer at his Buffalo Bill's brewpub in Hayward in 1985, the idea has taken off. His original beer now is brewed each fall by Pyramid in Berkeley and Seattle for Buffalo Bill's present owner, Geoff Harries, and craft brewers across the country make pumpkin beer.
Even giant Anheuser-Busch, home of bland lager, makes an excellent one -- Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. Coors also makes a pumpkin beer under the Blue Moon label. The Great American Beer Festival in Denver draws more and more pumpkin beers, the Brewers Association says.
Each brewer goes his or her own way, dumping in spices like ginger and cinnamon, hacking up pumpkin pulp and adding it at various stages in the brewing process, working for the perfect color and that Thanksgiving aroma of ripe pumpkin.
In Seattle, Elysian Brewing co-founder Dick Cantwell makes extreme pumpkin beer.
Tap that pumpkin
Earlier this month, as Cantwell described his pumpkin saga on the phone, he said he was brewing Dark o' the Moon Pumpkin Stout. He even puts one pumpkin beer, called Night Owl, in a carved-out giant pumpkin for a second fermentation. "This year I'm scorching the insides of the pumpkin, which caramelizes it, makes it less porous. We're getting better at it,'' he said.
Why pumpkin beer? Cantwell sighs. "I don't know why it's so popular. It seems to capture people's fancy. When we did the first fest two years ago, we thought, 'Well, we hope people will come.'
"It turned out to be our busiest day of the year by 40 percent," he says. "Last year there was a line out the door for 10 hours."
Pumpkin beer has gotten so popular that the Great American Beer Festival in Denver added a pumpkin beer subcategory for the first time. "There were 15 entries," Brewers Association's Julia Herz says. And Dick Cantwell's Great Pumpkin won a second place silver medal, edged out only by a beer made with berries. It's a brave new beery world these days.
The idea of pumpkin beer makes beer historian Bob Skilnik, author of "Beer & Food: An American History," snicker -- well, almost. He admits he likes pumpkin beers; always buys them each fall. But pumpkin beer, while a true piece of Americana, was not exactly lofty stuff in colonial times.
Truth is, quality malted barley to make beer had to be imported from England, Skilnik says. It was hard to obtain and expensive, so colonists made do with what they had -- and that included pumpkins and corn. "The Indians taught the earliest colonists how to grow pumpkins along with corn. The vines grew up the corn stocks; it was an efficient use of space."
So when it came time to brew beer, everything fermentable was tossed into the brew kettle: Both corn and pumpkins went in, along with persimmons and Jerusalem artichokes, Skilnik said. "When I see everyone replicating the beers of the past, I kind of laugh. What most people don't know is there was some pretty foul stuff passing for beer in colonial America.
"But as long as you could drink it, it was all right," he said.
There's no Bay Area pumpkin beer fest this year. However, a few local brewers make the leap to pumpkin beers. One is Emil Caluori, head brewer at Steelhead at Burlingame Station, Burlingame. His annual pumpkin beer goes on tap in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Using pumpkin alone doesn't really work, Caluori says. To get the proper color and most importantly that snatch of pumpkin pie aroma that Americans love, he uses his own spice combination: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and a little clove. "It comes out better than I thought it would," Caluori says. At 6 percent ABV, it's got some kick, too -- something the American colonists would have loved.
Bill Owens, who still lives in Hayward, explains that he got the idea for his pumpkin ale while reading a book about America's early settlers. He discovered that even George Washington made pumpkin ale.
"I thought, oh my God, I'm a gardener, so I grew some pumpkins." He discovered that pumpkin, which is in the gourd family, has no flavor when it's fermented. He realized he had to add the flavor back somehow. "So I walked across the street to the old Lucky Supermarket and bought a lot of pumpkin pie spice. I made a liquid in a coffee percolator, put it in the beer and got that wonderful pumpkin flavor. It's what most everybody does today," he said.
"It was a huge success. It's one of those trademark beers, like the Pillsbury Doughboy."
COMING UP: 1-7 p.m. Nov. 10. Second annual West Coast Barrel Aged Beer Fest and Street Party. The Bistro, 1001 B St., Hayward, 510-886-8525. Proprietor Vic Kralj says brewer interest keeps on growing; he's expecting more than 60 barrel-aged beers from all around the West Coast. The fest is professionally judged; there's live music and barbecue all day. If the idea of beer aged in wood fascinates you, this is the place to go to taste a wide variety of styles and aging methods.
TRAPPIST CAFE UPDATE: Chuck Stilphen and his business partner, Aaron Porter, said they're about two weeks away from opening their Trappist beer cafe, which they plan to stock with every Belgian beer they can find. Can't wait. The address is 460 8th St. in Old Oakland, just around the corner from Broadway.