The inevitable pumpkin beer…

This is a tough blog to write, mainly because I still haven’t decided how I really feel about pumpkin beers.  The culture around pumpkin beers is somewhat annoying.  (My apologies to all the women that get crazy excited when they first see that pumpkin beers have been added to the taps at the bars)  The fact is, that as the excitement and love for pumpkin beers continues to grow, we have not only seen an influx in the variety of pumpkin beers on the market, but we have also seen these one time “fall” beers, beginning to appear on shelves and in bars at the beginning of August.  I have to be completely honest, it strikes a nerve when I see a beer that seems to suggest fall and the end of the warm weather becoming available when, as a beer drinker, I still want to be enjoying beers that remind me of the beach and warm weather.  Even more annoying, is the fact that with the enormous variety of pumpkin beers that are available, in my opinion there are very few that I would consider drinkable, nevermind “good”.

Rant aside, this is still a popular version of the “vegetable” beer and since it is now October, (a good time for pumpkin beers to become available) I figured it would be worthwhile to share a few pumpkin beers that I find to be tasty and worthy of enjoying as we close in on the holiday season and the days get colder and darker quicker.

Before I share with you my pumpkin suggestions, I figure I should share with you my criteria for judging a pumpkin beer first.  I believe there are two distinct categories when it comes to pumpkin beers, the pumpkin spice category and the vegetable category.

Let’s first look at the pumpkin spice category.  Immediately this version instigates thoughts of Thanksgiving and warm pumpkin pie.  This particular version of a pumpkin beer relies more on the spice characteristics in hopes of replicating that distinct pumpkin pie aroma and flavor.  These beers can either be made with real pumpkin, or simply made using a combination of spices.  Even though these beers may not contain any actual pumpkin, they are still considered to be of the pumpkin variety due to their incredible likeness to pumpkin pie.  In this category the spices are the star.  Combinations of allspice, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla (using all or some combination of them) are mixed together throughout the brewing process to replicate that age old aroma and flavor.  The biggest issue with this particular category, is the proper usage of the spices.  Whether it is poor ratios causing one particular spice to be to dominant (often the allspice) or simply “over-spicing” in general, so that the pumpkin or even beer becomes almost indistinguishable, an improper spice profile can quickly ruin this beer.  When I drink a pumpkin beer that falls into this category, I look for two major things, a balance between spice flavor and beer flavor; and also a spice ratio that allows the drinker to taste each spice but still tends to lean a little more on the cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla flavors.  Personally I find it important that those particular spices are slightly more dominant because they have a “rounder” flavor profile.  Allspice, clove and nutmeg tend to be harsher and have a little more bite often making it difficult to drink if they are the dominant spices.  Cinnamon, nutmeg and especially vanilla, are warming, sweeter and generally softer on the palate.

The second category of pumpkin beers, what I call the vegetable category, rely more on the flavor of actual pumpkin and have a much lighter, almost non-existent spice profile.  Instead of shooting for the pumpkin pie flavor, these beers are trying to use raw pumpkin, or the essence of real pumpkin flavor as the backbone of these beers.  More often than not these beers are lighter in body, more sessionable (lower ABV) and have a much more delicate flavor profile.  Often these beers taste closer to Oktoberfests or autumn ales than what we would traditionally expect from a pumpkin beer.  While these beers don’t have to worry much about spice additions, the key to a quality version of this beer is finding a way to truly capture the flavor of the pumpkin.  Pumpkin on its own is not terribly flavorful.  Thus, using raw pumpkin requires the brewery to use a ton of pumpkins in order to get the flavor.  The other option many people choose is to roast some pumpkin allowing it to caramelize a little bit before adding it to the process.  Whichever way the brewer chooses, it is a difficult task to capture the flavor of pumpkin without the use of spices.

Now that I have broken down, what I consider to be the two distinct types of pumpkin beers, it is time for me to share with you 5 pumpkin beers, that I believe make the cut in both quality and flavor.  Being a native New Englander I have been a little biased to pumpkin styles from this area, that being said I have done my homework to try beers from all over the country, and here is my list of pumpkin beers worth trying.

Unlike most of my beer ratings post, this list of pumpkin beers is in a specific order, working its way towards my favorite pumpkin beer.  Like all of my lists this is a top “5” however I am adding in an honorable mention this time, since I was having a difficult time selecting the final beer to make the cut.

Here we go…

(Honorable Mention) BJ’s Holidaze Harvest Pumpkin Ale                                           Style: Vegetable/Spice/Herb                                                                                             (BJ’s Brewhouse Countrywide 4.7%ABV)                                                                           Beer Advocate Rating: N/A  RateBeer Rating: 74

BJs Holidaze Harvest Pumpkin Ale

It was a difficult decision if this beer or the next beer would make the official top 5, however after deep thought I decided that this just missed the cut, but still deserved some sort of acknowledgment.  This particular pumpkin beer was one of the first beers in this style that gave me hope that a quality pumpkin beer could be created.  After years of drinking standards such as Harpoon (no offense to those who love it) this was the first time I had a pumpkin beer that wasn’t overly spiced and to sweet.  BJ’s is a chain restaurant and brewery that can be found all over the country, while I have never been a HUGE fan of their beers, it always a great place to grab some food have a drink and hang out.  When I was living out in Southern California I went to a BJ’s around the time of Thanksgiving and tried this beer.  It immediately made me think of my mother’s pumpkin pie and truly hit the spot.

The beer pours a deep orange almost amber color with a solid long lasting white head.  This beer’s aroma screams pumpkin pie, but the flavor from the spices is balanced and tasteful.  This is a standard pumpkin spice beer with a full body and short pleasant aftertaste.  While nothing about this beer truly stands out, it is a nice balanced example of the style and the spice profile is present but not to overwhelming.

Matt’s personal rating: 3.2 out of 5

                                                                                                                                               #5  CBC The Great Pumpkin Ale                                                                                           Style: Vegetable/Spice/Herb                                                                                               (Cambridge Brewing Company  Cambridge, MA 4.4%ABV)                                               Beer Advocate Rating: 90 RateBeer Rating: 82

Cambridge Brewing Company The Great Pumpkin Ale

CBC’s The Great Pumpkin Ale, is not only a very interesting beer, but it is the only pumpkin beer fitting in my previously stated “vegetable” category to make my list.  This beer is probably the closest thing I have ever had to an easy drinking sessionable pumpkin beer.  The beer poured a light amber orange with large white head composed of tiny bubbles.  The aroma was very light, hints of malt, pumpkin and perhaps a tinge of spices are present on the nose.  The flavor is what really sets this beer apart for the majority of pumpkin beers, including all of the other beers on this list.  While there may be some spices in this beer, they are simply used as a balancing agent and deliver almost nothing to the beers taste.  Instead a fresh (un)caramelized pumpkin flavor is present.  The pumpkin has that fresh out of the garden flavor and is extremely light.  The beer is light-bodied and drinks like a nice amber colored ale.  This beer is a fantastic early autumn beer, light enough to be enjoyed while it is still warm out, but flavorful enough to be recognized as a pumpkin beer moving us into the late fall months.

Honestly I haven’t found a lot of beers that remind me of this particular pumpkin beer.  The majority of them are all heavily spiced and this was a nice change.  I did recently try Wormtown’s Pumpkin Beer.  While it wasn’t as good as CBC’s it did remind me a lot of it, remaining light, minimally spiced and easy to drink.

Matt’s personal rating: 3.5 out of 5

#4 Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin                                                                                       Style: Vegetable/Spice/Herb “Imperial”                                                                           (Hoppin’ Frog Brewery  Akron, OH  8.4% ABV)                                                                 Beer Advocate Rating: 85  RateBeer Rating: 91

Hoppin’ Frog Brewery Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin

As the first imperial pumpkin to make the list Hoppin’ Frogs Double Pumpkin is a big full bodied, heavily spiced beer that absolutely screams pumpkin pie.  It pours a deep reddish brown with a head full of large bubbles that dissipates very quickly.  Head retention is perhaps the most disappointing part of this beer, as the head formation was completely gone a minute after the pour.  That being said the beer was still mildly carbonated for the “size” of the beer.  The aroma was strongly spiced, with cinnamon and allspice being the stars.  There was also a slight hint of alcohol on the nose, but it tended to hide in the background behind the spice profile.  This beer certainly falls under the niche of pumpkin pie style pumpkin beers.  Not only is the spice aroma strong, but the flavor is equally as present.  While the flavor of the spice profile is fairly balanced, this beer’s biggest issue in terms of flavor comes from the strong alcohol presence.  While I have nothing against that warming alcohol quality, the level of alcohol burn in this beer is a little to high for my taste.  Since the beer is an imperial it is understandable that there is some level of an alcohol burn, that being said I believe it could have been hidden a little better.  While the pie spices are certainly the star of this beers flavor profile, the alcohol burn and finish are very evident and a little too strong.

All things considered, based on this beers ABV this is still a very drinkable and fairly well-balanced imperial pumpkin.  Drinking it certainly gives you visions of pumpkin pie on thanksgiving, and if you can handle the slight alcohol taste this is certainly a very tasty beer for this time of year.

Matt’s personal rating 3.6 out of 5

 

#3 Drunkin Punkin                                                                                                             Style:  Vegetable/Spice/Herb  “Imperial”                                                                    (Glacier Brewhouse  Anchorage, AK 8.5% ABV)                                                                 Beer Advocate Rating: n/a  RateBeer Rating:  n/a

It’s not a beer, but it’s a glacier :)

So I must preface this beer with the simple fact that I don’t know if this beer is still in production or if this brewhouse is even still in operation.  The last reviews I can find on this particular beer are from 2008.  That being said when I had this beer in Northern California in 2007 it was probably the best pumpkin beer I had ever had at that point in time.

This beer, originating from a small brewhouse in Anchorage, pours a crystal clear amber with a small tight tan head.  The head is long lasting and leaves a brilliant amount of lace.  (I haven’t had this beer in years and I can still vividly remember this)  The aroma was heavily spiced (seemingly a common theme with imperial pumpkin beers) starring nutmeg and allspice.  Even with the strong spice character there was still an evident and obvious aroma of real pumpkin.  The flavor continued to follow suite, with a nice spice flavor but balanced about midway through the taste with a lovely, fleshy, caramelized pumpkin flavor.  The beer finishes with a nice buttery and diacetyl flavor, dying out very slowly.  The beer was medium to full bodied, and truly was like drinking an alcoholic desert.  Unlike Hoppin’ Frog’s Imperial, this beer had very little to no alcohol burn making the drinking experience that much more enjoyable.  If anybody has had this beer or knows if it is still available please let me know.  You’ll be my best friend.

Matt’s personal rating 3.8 out of 5

 

#2″Punkin'” Ale                                                                             Style:Vegetable/Spice/Herb
(Dogfish HeadBrewery  Milton, DE  7% ABV)
Beer Advocate Rating:  88  RateBeer Rating:  90

Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale

In my opinion Dogfish Head, to this day is still one of the most innovative breweries out there.  I can’t say they single handedly started the trend of experimental brewing, but Sam Calagione is one of the pioneers of out of the box craft brewing.

Dogfish Head’s pumpkin release, simply entitled “punkin'”, is another release from this brewery that illustrates their out of the box prowess.  First off this beer straddles the imperial/not imperial line by clocking in at a drinkable but dangerous 7% ABV.  This brown ale turned pumpkin pours a lovely brown/mahogany with a thick, frothy off-white head.  The head lasts until the last drop is finished and a gorgeous amount of lacing can be seen the entire length of the glass.  The beers aroma is sweet and malty and full of spice.  Unlike a lot of other pumpkin beers the sweetness is very noticeable in the aroma.  The flavor tastes like a pumpkin pie with caramel on top.  The brown sugar used in this beer adds a deep residual sweetness that really sets this beer apart from others.  Also the base brown ale really amplifies the overall maltiness of the beer.  While most pumpkin beers come across as sweet, this one comes across with a complex multi-demensional sweetness.

This would easily be my favorite pumpkin beer of all-time, that is of course if it wasn’t for this last behemoth…

Matt’s personal rating 4 out of 5.

 

#1  “Pumking”                                                                                                                        Style: Vegetable/Spice/Herb “Imperial”
(Southern Tier Brewing Company Lakewood, NY  8.6% ABV)
Beer Advocate Rating: 90  RateBeer Rating:  98

The “king” of pumpkin beers. Southern Tier Pumking

Delicious, perfectly balanced, and did I mention delicious!

I don’t think I have made it any secret that I am very skeptical about pumpkin beers.  With the exception of maybe Dogfish Head’s release every pumpkin I have talked about so far has had significant flaws.  This beer has NONE.  It is a big beer with this years release checking in at 8.6% ABV, it pours a perfect translucent burnt orange with a thick long lasting white head.  While the beer looks amazing, it is the flavor and aroma that really sets this beer apart.  It is perhaps the only pumpkin beer I have ever found that truly captures both raw pumpkin flavor and a perfect balance of spices.  The initial flavor of the beer is a sweet fresh pumpkin explosion.  As the beer settles on your tongue the spices slowly come front in center, with cinnamon and nutmeg taking the leading role.  Hints of allspice help balance out the sweetness and a pleasant malty backbone sticks with the drinker the entire time.  After the spices have played their role, the beer still remains pleasantly sweet with hints of pumpkin as a comforting slightly warming aftertaste takes over.  The aftertaste is long lasting but flavorful, allowing the drinker to hold on to the last remnants of that delicate pumpkin to the last possible moment.  Perhaps the most rewarding thing (and dangerous) about this beer is that even at 8.6% there is absolutely no sensation that you are drinking a highly alcoholic beer.  This beer is a pleasure to drink, and there is good reason as to way it is referred to as the king.

Matt’s personal rating (4.5 out of 5)

So there you have it, my choices for pumpkin beers worth drinking.  If you are a fan of the style take time to try them all before the season comes to an end.  If you generally tend to avoid pumpkin beers, I understand, but at least take the plunge and check out DogFish Head’s and Southern Tier’s versions of this hit or miss beer style.

 

Until next time…

Categories: Beer

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