It's true that some beers are more confectionary than others. Pouring at the Taphouse right now, Elysian Night Owl lands in the middle. It has the full compliment of spice, with "with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice," but it's not super sweet, thankfully. It's one of the best examples, in fact.
But the roots of pumpkin ale are much older and less sweet than this! With the weather turning, it's time to think seriously about fall beers.
Back in the good old days of the Colonial era and early Republic, malted barley wasn't always easy to get, and fermentable sugars might come in many other forms. An important source of them was pumpkin, the squash native to the Americas.
In this herbal and medical treatise from 1801, Samuel Stearns writes about the nourishing, strengthening, and yes, sometimes gassy, properties of early beers.
Beer, CerevisiaHappily, today we have a better sense for what might cause dysuria or gonorrhea!
Common malt beer is made of water, malt and hops. Porter and ale is also made of the same ingredients. - There are likewise other kinds of beer, as pumpkin beer, bran beer, spruce beer, etc.
Malt liquors, when good, are called nourishing and strengthening, but when they have grown sour, they are apt to produce a dysury, or a gonorrhoea; to remedy which, give a little brandy. When malt liquors have become tart, they should be drawn off, as they are used, into a jug, and to every pint of the liquor, a drachm of powdered chalk ought to be added, which railes a new ferment, and destroys the acidity.
Ale sometimes produces flatulences, cholics, and the cholera morbus; but not calcarious diseases, as has been asserted. A constant use of ale, keeps up a constant fever, and is therefore injurious.
Porter agrees with some constitutions, but not with others; and the same may be said of other malt liquors. It cured a young women in Connecticut of the palpitations of the heart when other remedies were tried in vain.
For more on the history of pumpkin beers, see this note on serious eats.
And don't forget about Ken Burn's Prohibition! For old-media types, it starts tonight on TV. For new-media types, you can get a prohibition name and Facebook avatar, or watch vice on your iDevice. Either way, we'll thumb our noses and toast the vast wrongness of it all.