On his 20-acre farm in Windsor, N.S., Danny Dill grows more than 50 varieties of pumpkins. But there is only one for which he is known the world over: Howard Dill's Atlantic Giant.
Invented by Dill's father, Howard, in the seventies, this Jabba-the-Hutt-like variety breaks world records year after year. The current title belongs to a farmer in Rhode Island whose Giant weighed in at a hefty 2,009 pounds this year.
Pumpkin fever is at full tilt, Dill says, and not just in the record books. "Now there's all this craze over pumpkin beer," he say. "We hadn't even heard of it until seven or eight years ago."
Pumpkin ale dates to the 1700s, when thirsty pioneers used native squash to brew beer and wine. The style fell out of favour once barley became readily available until the 1980s when a California brewpub owner created a beer with pumpkin and chucked in some pie spices for flavour. Little did he know that the combination would spark what one brewery sales director calls "pumpkin zombies."
"It starts in the summer," says David Bieman of Toronto's Great Lakes Brewery. "We have these customers coming in, asking us again and again, 'When's the pumpkin coming? When's the pumpkin coming?'"
It was Dill's Atlantic Giants that led to the Canadian resurgence of the style. In 2004, the Windsor Pumpkin Festival asked Halifax's Propeller Brewing Company to make a beer showcasing the celebrity gourd – and it has brewed it ever since.
The Giant variety is not as sweet as pie pumpkins so brewer Bobby Zacharias uses only light, bready pale malts for a golden ale that lets the notes of fresh pumpkin pulp and spicy clove shine. Propeller cranks out bigger and bigger batches every fall. This year 1,000 pounds of Giants went into 36,000 pints. But it's still not enough to slake the zombies' thirst.
"Our sales are higher than ever," Zacharias says.
Across Canada, pumpkin ale fever is at such a pitch that some breweries have been sold out for weeks. If you haven't stocked your fridge yet, you may be out of luck.
"We expect to be completely depleted by Halloween," says James Hume, product manager for beer and cider at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. "From 2009 to 2011, sales of pumpkin beer have increased by 169 per cent. This year, we brought in 10 varieties, the most to date – but the sell-through has been unbelievable."
So why all this pining for pumpkin? One reason is our love of Halloween and parties, where pumpkin ales take centre stage. A Harris/Decima poll released this month shows that the average Canadian family spends $75 on Halloween treats and costumes.
Plus, unlike some specialty brews such as a Belgian Quadrupel or a Double IPA, most shoppers know what a pumpkin ale will taste like. Most of the brews use a combination of pie spices: cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and ginger. The best are also backed by a hefty caramel and graham-cracker base evoking pumpkin pie in a pint. It's a tricky balance – more than a few pumpkin ales are overloaded with spice. Thankfully, as more brewers get in on the action, the style is evolving.
Parallel 49 Brewing Company, in East Vancouver, makes one of the best in the country. Unlike the others, it's not an ale, but a lager. Schadenfreude Pumpkin Oktoberfest expertly melds the rich, biscuit-forward German lager style with roasted pumpkin flavour, subtle spices and vanilla bean. Heavenly.
Toronto's newest brewpub, Indie Alehouse, made a complex Pumpkin Abbey ale using a spicy, fruity Belgian Abbey yeast and pumpkins prepared three ways – then it blended the beer with its silky stout. At 9.5-per-cent alcohol, it's dangerously drinkable – rich pumpkin and caramel play with lively notes of pepper and ginger and a roasty finish.
These inventive beers aren't news to Danny Dill. His customers bring him all kinds of crazy pumpkin brews from Canada and the United States – he just doesn't drink them. "I'm still stuck on an old-fashioned beer down here called Oland," he says unapologetically. "It's a farmer's beer."
Still on the shelf
Got the fever? Here's the best of what's still on the shelf:
St-Ambroise Pumpkin Ale, Quebec
$9.95/6 pack, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, B.C.
Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale, Ontario
$4.95/650 ml, Ontario only
Chatoe Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale, Oregon
$6.75/600 ml, Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta