Produced by October for Elysian Brewing Company.
In the fall of 2017, Joel Holland sent a pumpkin to the Seattle Center for a festival, just as he had the year before and the year before that. This was no ordinary pumpkin, however, just as the annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival is no ordinary celebration. The specimen in question was a 1,790-pound colossus used to hold approximately 250 gallons of Elysian Brewing’s finest pumpkin beer. On October 5 and 6 of this year, thousands will once again don orange garb and descend in droves to watch as the grandest of gourds is tapped onsite and poured into pints.
“The festival tickets are quite coveted. People dress up in costumes and it turns into quite a party,” Holland says with a chuckle. He’s pleased to see his work serve as the focal point of the merrymaking. “That’s where all the revelry really happens: where individual glasses of beer are filled from the pumpkin.”
Although the squash Holland presented may have been a leviathan of Biblical proportions, it wasn’t even the largest pumpkin in his patch last year. That honor went to a 2,363-pound beauty, which nabbed the trophy at the 44th World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off in California and set the world record for the largest pumpkin grown outside a greenhouse, as well as the largest ever grown in North America. In order to make an appearance on television and come to rest in a place of honor at the New York Botanical Gardens, the pumpkin had to be strapped to the flatbed truck and driven across the country in only two and a half days.
“They looked into flying it, but the logistics were… difficult,” Holland says. The same could be said of the logistics of virtually everything to do with cultivating these botanical behemoths. At its peak, the monstrous fruit was growing at a rate of 50 pounds a day. It was born from a tangle of vines that sprawled for 1,000 square feet. For months, Holland meticulously pruned away other blossoms in order to ensure that the plant concentrated all of its energy on one glorious result. “We use special fertilizers and have the soil tested,” he says. “Some growers even test the tissue of the plant to see what it’s missing and provide the nutrients.”
Every element of Holland’s technique has been carefully honed over decades of trial and error. While Atlantic Giants, the variety of Holland's pumpkin, have remained the preferred variety at competitions for years, the sizes that growers have been able to attain have increased astronomically. His record-smashing pumpkin in 1992 was a mere 827 pounds, or roughly a third of the size of the winners today. He still remembers when he spied his first true giant pumpkins at a state fair in the 1970s.
“At the time, the winning specimens were like 200 to 300 pounds. That’s where my interest was sparked,” he remembers. Holland was working as a firefighter, but was so intrigued that he resolved to test his mettle in the next competition. “I decided to grow one and enter it in the fair. I was lucky enough to win my very first time out there.”
From then on, there was no going back. By the time he retired from the fire department in 2001, his passion lay firmly with the pumpkins. He wasn’t alone in his zeal. Pumpkin weigh-offs are held around the world every fall and there’s a small, but fervent community of growers who exchange advice on online forums like bigpumpkins.com. Although there is a certain amount of friendly rivalry among the members, competitive growers are largely content to geek out and share in the pumpkin camaraderie.
“Seeds are traded between the growers and there are auctions where you can buy them,” Holland says. “The seeds from that particular winning pumpkin are scattered all over the world and growing in many different places.”
Some of those tiny seeds will turn into giants and, if they’re very lucky, might just wind up as the centerpiece of one of the most raucous craft beer bashes on the West Coast.