I love Autumn. I think most people from this part of the country really appreciate this part of the year. I mean, what’s not to love? Everything turns beautiful, the air smells better, you get to wear comfortable clothes combinations (sweatshirt and shorts, anyone?), and perhaps most importantly you get to drink all the amazing seasonal beers that hit the shelves. One of the most flavorful, intriguing, and often misunderstood styles that pops up this time of year is the Pumpkin Ale. To some, the idea of a pumpkin-flavored beer is a complete turn off. To others (like me), we mark our calendars for pumpkin beer season.
A Brief History
At first, it may sound like a pretty odd concept; of all the ingredients out there, why are so many beers made with pumpkin? Believe it or not, pumpkin in beer in America has a very long history. Back in “the day”, it was hard to find malted barley which is generally the most common grain used in today’s beer. Pumpkin, on the other hand, was in abundance and pretty easy to grow. They found out that they could swap out a lot of the barley with things like pumpkin, molasses, sweet potatoes, and squash to produce the sugars needed to make beer. Let’s face it, beers made with crazy ingredients is better than no beer at all – especially considering beer was actually safer to drink than the water at the time. These beers were designed to extract sugar (and therefore alcohol) from pumpkin rather than flavor, so as time went on and malted barley was easier to come by pumpkin was used less and less. Today’s pumpkin beers bear very little resemblance to the more rustic colonial pumpkin beers in that they focus more on pumpkin pie and spice flavors. Many of today’s pumpkin ales are described as “pumpkin pie in a glass”. Mmmm, thirsty yet?
There’s a lot of pumpkin beers out there right now. In fact, it seems like every craft brewer out there has a seasonal pumpkin ale nowadays. To be perfectly frank, most pumpkin beers are somewhere between “blech” and “meh”, so how do you know a good one from a bad one? Here’s a few recommendations I have for a starting point to the world of pumpkin beers:
Southern Tier – Pumking
Very few beers have a reputation like Pumking. Some love it, some hate it. It is, however, one of the top rated pumpkin beers according to both Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. This beer is a unique experience from the moment you pop off the cap as it fills the room with the aroma of freshly baked pumpkin pie. The taste is the closest thing you will find outside of NASA to being able to drink pumpkin pie – right down to the crust and whipped cream topping. It’s completely over-the-top and unapologetic in it’s huge flavor. Keep an open mind when trying this beer (don’t think beer, think pumpkin pie), and you will be rewarded with a truly unique experience. At 8.6% ABV, you might want to split this beer with two or three friends. Fans of this beer, keep your eyes peeled for the Oak Aged version.
Rivertown Brewing – Pumpkin Ale
This beer only clocks in at 5% ABV, but it feels like a big dessert beer. The thing that separates this beer from other pumpkin ales is the huge amount of sweet vanilla, molasses, cinnamon, and nutmeg flavors and aromas. Even with all of this complexity, this beer drinks very easily. Plus, it’s brewed right here in Ohio!
Dogfish Head – Punkin’
This beer may be one of the most popular pumpkin ales on the market, and for good reason. While other pumpkin beers are sometimes on the extreme side of things, Punkin’ actually tastes like beer. A full-bodied beer with a lot of spice character, but beer nonetheless. Nutmeg and brown sugar shine through, yet the beer is remarkably far from being too sweet.
The brewery recommends pairing this beer with turkey, roasted duck, lamb, stuffing, dessert dumplings, and sharp cheddar – in other words, grab a 4-pack while you can (it sells out fast!) and save it until Thanksgiving. You’ll be rewarded with a beer that drinks well during dinner and dessert.
The Bruery – Autumn Maple
Ok, so this beer isn’t technically a pumpkin beer since the brewery uses yams instead of pumpkin, but bear with me here! This beer is extremely complex, and at 10.5% it’s the biggest beer in this list. This beer is great for those who enjoy Belgian-style ales. The beer has notes of dark fruits, spices, buttered yams, pecans, and oddly enough pumpkin! The beer features cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, molasses, and maple syrup. The Belgian yeast strain adds notes of clove and coriander (neither of which are actually in the beer). A word of caution – this beer almost demands to be shared. Even as tasty as it is, it can be a daunting challenge to finish a bottle to yourself.
Sam Adams – Fat Jack
This is the first year that Fat Jack has been released, and I would be more than happy to see this beer come around every year. Perhaps the least “pumpkiny” beer on this list, Fat Jack showcases deep flavors of roasty malt, brown sugar, caramel, light cinnamon and nutmeg, noble hops, and just a hint of smoke. This one is definitely on the sweet side of things, but it would also be a fine accompaniment to savory fall dishes like buttery squash. The large format bottle and higher alcohol content (8.6% ABV) make this beer a great candidate for sharing.
So there you have it, pumpkin beers! Pumpkin brews sort of have a cult following among beer geeks. They aren’t for everyone, but if you have never had a pumpkin beer then give them a shot. Remember, it’s not important that you like every beer you try. What’s most important is the willingness to try new beers.