Now that the 2014 Autumnal Equinox has already passed by and the weather is at least temporarily cooling down, it’s time to think about fall seasonal craft beers. What’s that mean? It’s finally time to drink pumpkin beer!
Whenever I interview brewmasters, I enjoy picking their brains on the topic. Their answers vary widely. It’s a sore subject among many in the craft-beer scene. Why? Because each year, these so-called “pumpkin” beers keep getting released earlier and earlier, trying to be the very first in the marketplace. But how can this be a TRUE pumpkin beer, when in actuality, pumpkin harvest season isn’t remotely nearby? In fact, I’ve seen the first of many so-called beers arrive at stores in late July and early August.
The only true way to discern from the imitators is to delve into a discussion with a beer authority (such as an owner of a craft-beer package store). On September 2, at the conclusion of Dragon Con, I picked up nine beers from Hop City in Atlanta to compare and contrast. Chief Hop Head Kraig Torres told me the majority of the seasonals released this early in the year don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, despite what is listed on their labels.
First of all, there is no overarching nationwide “rule,” which all breweries must follow. Case in point, each state has different rules for labeling ingredients in food and beverages. This is how many breweries get away with listing “made with real pumpkins” on their beer labels, when in actuality, it may be pumpkin extract from the previous year or even ale brewed with pumpkin-pie spices. The least promising ones were malt liquors with pumpkin spices added. I made sure to totally stray from them.
I’ve been told my multiple sources to be on the lookout for Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale and Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, both of which are made with the real deal. So, how can you tell which ones are actually brewed with real pumpkins?
With that being said, which pumpkin beers are good? Which are bad? I attempt to wade through the many seasonal options so you don’t have to. In fact, I randomly filled my growler with pumpkin beer on a visit to Frugal MacDoogal’s in Nashville recently, so I’ve added it to the list and try to proclaim a best-of fall selection!
I will quote what is listed on the label, then give my opinion of the beer.
– PUNK’N Harvest Pumpkin Ale – “Ale brewed with Pumpkin & Spices.” PUNK’N tastes like an average beer with little to no spices, whatsoever. There isn’t even a hint of pumpkin pie. This is a Seasonal fail.
– Pumpkin Woodchuck Hard Cider – “Private Reserve Pumpkin is a rare and limited run cider that features pumpkin it its most pure form. No spices, no frills, just delicious pumpkin. The naked pumpkin profile plays perfectly against the red culinary apple varieties used in this cider.” Not really being a cider drinker, I can’t quite put my finger on this one. It’s orange like a pumpkin, but I taste hints of the apple and nothing else. No spices, nothing artificial… but no pumpkin, either. Since it isn’t a listed ingredient, I can only assume pumpkin extract and food coloring was used. No real pumpkins were harmed with the making of this product. Although this one is nice, I would still like to taste the pumpkin of a Pumpkin Woodchuck Hard Cider.
– Thomas Creek Pumpkin Ale – “Malt beverage brewed with spices and natural flavor” – This is one of the darkest pumpkin beers — copper in color — even though it’s not technically a beer or has actual pumpkin ingredients. The drink is bitter, although faint pumpkin spices are present. I would pass on this one.
– Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale – “Ale brewed with natural pumpkin flavors and spices and aged in oak bourbon barrels. Sharp pumpkin-bourbon taste, no pumpkin spices.” Because this one is different, I like it. The slight bourbon flavor is refreshing. I only wish it was made with real pumpkins, to make it my all-time favorite pumpkin beer.
– Dogfish Head Punkin Ale – “A full-bodied brown ale brewed with real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon & nutmeg.” Just reading the label, those are all the makings of a terrific pumpkin pie. But how is it in a beer? Neither smelling nor tasting like a cupboard full of spices, the least I could say is this one doesn’t feel artificial. But since it was released way before the pumpkin harvesting season, it can’t actually have “real pumpkin” as a real ingredient. Maybe it’s pumpkin extract or maybe it’s not really real pumpkin at all. Either way, this one is not very dark in color or sharp in taste. I’d say it’s pretty good.
– Starr Hill Boxcar Pumpkin Porter – “Boxcarr Pumpkin Porter is a traditional English-style Brown Porter with pumpkin added to the mash. Light spicing allows the subtle flavors of pumpkin and roasty porter to shine through.” I’ve been told by multiple sources who manage craft-beer stores that this is one of the best pumpkin beers around. They were right. Being a dark-beer and pumpkin-beer fan forever, I always love when beer styles collide. This one is not overpowering. It’s not too dark. It’s not bitter. It doesn’t have a lot of spices. It’s a great combination, but I’m unsure if it has real pumpkin ingredients.
– New Holland Brewing Ichabod Pumpkin Ale – “Real pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg enrich this amber brew. Pairings: roasted poultry, root vegetables, peanut sauce and caraway.” Dark and cloudy with very little spices apparent in smell and taste. Only slight taste of pumpkin. OK beer.
– Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin – Nothing written on label. The color is a red-orange hue. I taste many pumpkin-pie spices. It’s very sweet with an unusual heavy-metallic aftertaste. Not very appealing.
– Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin – “Half imperial stout, half pumpkin ale, with aromas of dried fruit, chocolate and freshly baked pumpkin pie. Enjoy this black, full-bodied stout now or save it for a chilly fall evening.” Now, this is something very nice. A dark beer that is counterbalanced with pumpkin, but not overpowered by spices. The label promises a “big, rich and spicy” stout… Two out of three ain’t too shabby.
– Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale: “Ale brewed with pumpkin and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves).” An orangish shade of brown, this is one of the darkest beers out of my grouping. I can taste a few spices, but they’re not overpowering. Hands down, this one has the best label of the bunch. I’m surprised the beer is an ale, due to the color and taste. I would’ve swore it was a darker style. I like it, but I’m still partial to my just-discovered pumpkin dark beers, which I instantly fell for.
Overall, I really enjoyed the entries by Starr Hill and Weyerbacher the most. I will definitely be on the lookout for more pumpkin beers to sample, hopefully a couple of new great ones will magically appear in my region.