A short time ago one of the people I follow on Twitter challenged us to admit a beer confession. You know, that deep dark secret about beer you don’t want your other beer geek friends to know about. Something along the lines of “I think all Victory beers taste bad”. I thought for a minute and I tweeted back, “I don’t get all this revelry about pumpkin beers. I’m sorry, I just don’t.”
And I don’t. My Twitter and Untappd feeds have been swamped with people drinking and espousing upon the greatness of this yearly seasonal beer style. Coming from Delaware, to me, pumpkins only have three uses: Jack O’Lanterns, pumpkin pie, and being shot from an air cannon (yes, Delaware gave you Pumpkin Chunkin but we also gave you Valerie Bertinelli, George Thorogood, VP Joe Biden and nylon – so I’m willing to call it even if you are). But pumpkin beer?
This black hole in my beer world probably stems from my early days of beer discovery. Except for Buffalo Bill’s brewing, there just weren’t a lot of pumpkin beers out there. And as their numbers slowly grew, I guess I just never notice, or cared.
Soon after my tweet I found myself at Stateline Liquors deciding what to drink over the weekend. My tastes were leading me one way when a voice whispered, “Revisit pumpkin beers, and see if your attitude towards them is still warranted.” I found myself inspired, after all one of these many pumpkin beers that was getting mega-twitted must be worth a taste shouldn’t it? Craft brewing has evolved by leaps and bounds since the 80s, surely pumpkin beers must have evolved along with it. And aren’t I the one who always tells people, “If you don’t like something try it again every once in awhile. Sometimes your palate changes”? So I left Stateline with a pumpkin patch full of beers to try and a mission. Find a pumpkin beer I could look forward to every year.
First, let me say that I was happy to see that every beer I tried did indeed list pumpkin as an ingredient – no cheating with just spices here! And in most of the beers I tried, the pumpkin was quite evident. They also included a blend of spices normally found in pumpkin pie. In some beers the blend was very balanced, while in others one spice or another was a little more forward than the rest. In the interest of time, I won’t review every beer I tried. Most of them were pretty solid beers with notes of pumpkin and spices. Let’s look at a handful of stand out beers (both good and bad) from my tasting.
Two I didn’t like :
Heavy Seas “The Greater Pumpkin” – If I’d have read the label on this before I bought it I wouldn’t have. Bourbon barrels are my arch-nemesis in the brewing world because I hate the taste of bourbon. And this Imperial Pumpkin Ale (9% ABV) just reeked of it. I couldn’t get past the bourbon taste enough to even figure out where the pumpkin began. Not my type of beer by a long shot, but if you’re not like me and enjoy the bourbon thing, try it – you’ll probably like it.
Fisherman’s (Cape Ann Brewing) “Pumpkin Stout” – I really liked the sound of this when I bought it, a stout with pumpkin and spices. I could just imagine how nicely the spices and the stout would play together being brought together nicely by the pumpkin. That however, didn’t happen. While the pumpkin was nice, I found the spices and the roasted tones of the stout in conflict with each other. Instead of working together, they seemed to be battling each other for supremacy on my palate, and I’m still not sure who won.
Two I liked :
Uinta’s “Pumpkin Ale” – This brew benefits from the fact that the spices are subtle. The pumpkin comes through nicely and after that, you’re not bludgeoned by an onslaught of heavy spices. This is no doubt a pumpkin beer from top to bottom and delivers it in a very enjoyable way. I would have no problem buying this one again.
Schalfly’s “Pumpkin Ale” – Sooner or later I figured I’d find a pumpkin beer that spoke to me on a nostalgic level. The pumpkin is evident as you would expect, but the spice blend is nutmeg forward and thus made it the beer that reminded most of my mom’s pumpkin pie. Because of that I thoroughly enjoyed every sip. This is the pumpkin beer I’d serve at Thanksgiving while trying hard to fight the urge to put a scoop of whipped cream on the top of it.
One I loved :
Southern Tier’s “Pumking” – This was one of the beers that had been blowing up my twitter feed, and with very good reason. It is simply amazing. First, the beer has a solid tone of vanilla to it which just ties all the other flavors together. The spices are very subtle, and because of this Pumking doesn’t hit you over the head and scream “pumpkin pie!” Instead, it engages your palate as each sip brings something different to your nose and tongue. Several times I got the distinct impression of the flavor of pie crust (or the smell of pie crust as it comes out of the oven). Other times, the spices peaked through, all dancing in a background of pumpkin and vanilla.
The rest of the line up were all nice beers and if you like pumpkin beers, I encourage you to seek them out. The other ones that were part of my tasting were : Smuttynose, Dogfish Head, South Hampton, Weyerbacher, Heavy Sea’s regular pumpkin ale, and Elysian.
Was my mission a success? I’d say so. First, I confirmed that today’s brewers have indeed brought pumpkin beers to a high level. Real pumpkin. Fresh spices. Good stuff. And considering the level of quality demanded by today’s craft beer lovers, I’m not surprised.
And finally, I’m happy to say that next year I can join the multitudes of beer geeks when the next season of pumpkin beers begins to appear on the shelves with a simple question, “When are you getting Pumking in?” Mission accomplished.
What’s your favorite pumpkin beer?