[Ed. note: Publication of this article was delayed because the editor is a butthole and loses track of time easily.]
As I walked out to my car this morning, I noticed crunching under my feet with every step. The leaves are coming off the trees, and it finally feels a little like Fall. Pumpkin Flavored Season is here.
No, not that stuff. Although Starbucks has its own proprietary syrups, their pumpkin flavored syrups and the stuff from companies like Torani, Monin, etc. are all basically the same--artificial, sweet, and oddly polarizing.
What I want to talk about is a far superior Pumpkin Flavored Product: Pumpkin Beer.
The appeal of a pumpkin spice latte is as obvious as any other flavored latte; combine a sweet flavor (pumpkin spice) with a bitter flavor (espresso), and the complementing flavors end up being quite tasty.
Pumpkin beer, however, brings fascinating complexity to the mix with a balancing act of a few key players:
Nearly every brewery that puts out a pumpkin beer has a different balance of these ingredients, some to better effect than others. For the last few weeks, I've been grabbing any pumpkin beers I can find at the store and in my neighborhood bars. I am by no means a beer snob or connoisseur. I’m just a layperson who really enjoys craft beers. Oh yeah, and don’t drink beer unless it’s legal for you to do so. That’s the disclaimer. Now here are my reviews:
For me, pumpkin beers fall largely into two categories. The first is subtle and delicate, like a savory pumpkin ravioli. The second is bold and sweet, like your favorite pumpkin pie. For my money, I prefer the former. If I’m going to drink a beer overloaded with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, I’d rather it be a Christmas Ale.
This first beer falls into that “subtle” category. It’s an unfiltered pumpkin ale. I’ve read some things about filtered versus unfiltered beer, like how over-filtering can compromise flavor, but I don’t know about that stuff. It just so happens that some of my favorite beers are unfiltered. Put me in a strange bar and I’ll go for the first unfiltered Hefeweizen I see.
I digress. Harpoon Brewery’s UFO (UnFiltered Offering) Pumpkin is great. More pumpkin than pumpkin spice, it’s only slightly sweet and really easy to drink.
I've never had a pumpkin porter before, but the combination sounded immediately appealing to me. Epic Brewing's Pumpkin Porter, however, is an imperial pumpkin porter. Imperial styles are the bigger, stronger, more alcoholic versions of their non-imperial counterparts (this beer is over 8% ABV). Porters are already bold on their own; add double the hops and malt, and the resulting flavor completely steamrolls any pumpkin taste that may be present.
As an imperial porter, it's pretty darn good. But as a pumpkin porter, it leaves something to be desired. Like pumpkin flavor.
Up next is a Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin Ale. I normally shy away from Imperial Ales because I'm not a fan of the lingering bitterness on the palate typical of the style. Surprisingly, bitterness was not my issue with this beer. When pouring into a glass, you can smell sweet hints of cinnamon and caramel, but this beer does not taste nearly as good as it smells. With my first sip, I was overwhelmed by cloves and cardamom, along with a very funky taste I couldn't put my finger on. The whole time I thought I might be drinking cough syrup.
I spoke to a few people in the build-your-own six pack section of the grocery store where I bought this beer, and I found this is a go-to pumpkin ale for some. Maybe this year’s batch was a fluke, but I don’t want to drink this stuff again.
I don't have much to say about Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale. It's a really light ale without much complexity in the way of pumpkin flavors. I'm happy it wasn't overly sweet, but it was still like drinking a Corona Light with a shot of pumpkin syrup. This would be a good beer to provide at a Halloween party if it wasn't so expensive.
I really dig New Holland's beers. I had the chance to visit the brewery last year, and although I can't recommend eating any of their food, every beer I had at the bar was excellent. Ichabod Pumpkin Ale is no exception. Looking at the bottle art, I was expecting something pungent and hoppy, but was pleasantly surprised by the mellow flavor. The taste of hops is definitely there, but it plays well against the subtle pumpkin spice flavors.
Southern Tier’s Imperial Pumking is a crowd favorite (according to my own anecdotal evidence). When I told my friends I was writing some reviews of pumpkin beers, most of them excitedly asked “Have you tried Pumking yet?!” The answer is yes, I get Pumking every year because every store in my area sells it and because it’s damn tasty.
A word to the wise: edging in on 9% ABV, Pumking is the beer that always sneaks up on me. After finishing off one of those tall 22-ounce bottles, I am on my ass for the rest night.
Even though I was a little disappointed with Epic’s offering, I was still excited by the prospect of another brewery’s take on a pumpkin porter. When I saw Redhook’s version on the seasonal beer menu at TownHall in Cleveland, I jumped all over it.
Out Of Your Gourd is pretty light-bodied for a porter. That isn’t necessarily a negative for me, but it certainly wasn’t expected. Another exciting, unexpected thing was the aroma--you’ll get a nose full of black licorice. The beer itself doesn’t taste strongly of it, but the flavor is definitely there and it works really well. I loved this beer and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for a six-pack to take home.
The last beer I’m going to talk about is probably my favorite of the season: Shipyard’s Smashed Pumpkin. This beer is a little on the sweeter side, but not cloyingly so. Aside from the typical pumpkin spices, the two flavors I really picked up on were malts and ginger which played really well against the earthy pumpkin notes.
Unlike most of the sweeter pumpkin beers I’ve tried, this one maintains a certain crispness (both from the healthy hop flavor and just-right amount of carbonation) that makes it really easy to drink. And just like with Pumking, you’ll probably find out a little too late that this beer is 9% ABV, but it’s so delicious you won’t care.
In closing, there has been an explosion of craft pumpkin beers recently, and I was shocked at the varieties that were available this year. I ending up tasting well over a dozen, but limited myself to writing about ones that most people would be able to get their hands on.
By now you know what kind of pumpkin beer I like, so if there’s one you think I’d enjoy, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment or send me an email.
Brandon B. is a comic writer & artist. His work can be found at Draw Brandon Draw and Slipshine.