A recent post over at Serious Eats made me realize just how ensconced we Americans can be in regards to how we interpret the definition of beer. This isn’t the fault of the writer of the post, Maggie Hoffman, or any of the multitude of other folks out there whose interpretation of beers comes from the Bohemian and Bavarian traditions.
To us (and I include myself in this group, even thought my perspective is only recently shifting), a beer is simply nothing more than a mash of heated grain that has been allowed to ferment. Or to put it in more specific terms, Americans come down solidly as fans of the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law that stated the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley, and hops. Yeast was only discovered recently, many years after the Reinheitsgebot had been introduced.
But the Reinheitsgebot has only been on the books since 1516, a mere and most recent 10% or so of the entirety of beer history. Prior to this rule, anything could and would be added to the beer to either save money (which was more likely), or add compelling and interesting flavors and tastes(less likely, but still highly probable).
To see this first hand, one needs to look no further than the Belgians and their beer history to see how different beer can be. To the Belgians, the Reinheitsgebot was too limiting and restrictive. They add spices such as coriander to their witbier, and fruits such as cherries to their lambics. To a Belgian, adding spices and pumpkins to a beer is no big thing. It’s just another beer with an interesting flavor.
Of course one of the most popular beers in Belgium is Jupiler, a lager that has more in common with Miller High Life than with other beers of more complex character, so it’s a bit difficult to take them too seriously.
My point here is that Pumpkin beer is only a novelty to those of us who have forgotten the past. Beers were made with all sorts of vegetative matter for thousands of years. Herbs and spices, flowers and fruits, have all played a part in beer history. So yes, pumpkin beers are serious beers, as are cherry beers, smoked beers, and even floral beers. The issue here is we’ve only just remembered this fact within the past decade or so.