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The Beer Thinker: Pumpkin Is A Fruit, An Ale And A Lager

There are seasonal beers, there are holiday beers and then there are pumpkin beers.

The pumpkin beer has somehow emerged as its own market-pleasing beer style and industry segment. Other beers brewed with fruit (yes, a pumpkin is a fruit) and seasonal spices just don't seem to inspire the same kind of passionate following - or long list of brewers - as the great pumpkin.

I remember when Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, Calif., made the only pumpkin beer I knew of, and it was not all that long ago. Now, there are at least a dozen well-known craft breweries that do seasonal pumpkin releases, and a few hundred breweries overall that have done a pumpkin release at some point and possibly still do.

And while you would think pumpkin beers would have a fairly limited range of flavor profiles, they run anywhere from bitter to sweet to spicy to bready to creamy - that's right - creamy.

Pumpkin beers also seem to be showing up earlier every season, with many of them hitting the shelves in August this year. The early release schedule is one of those things beer geeks love to complain about - in between sips, of course.

Also, while pumpkin beers are associated with Halloween for obvious reasons, the combination of flavors in your typical pumpkin beer is not really meant to reflect Halloween specifically as much as evoke autumn in general. Some of them do tend to sell out quickly during the big rush leading up to Halloween, though a few I've tried lately, including the legendary Southern Tier Pumking, appear to be enjoying wider volume releases this year.

Finally, you might want to read the bottle labels closely on pumpkin beers if you like your pumpkin beer with real pumpkin. Some of them are labeled as having pumpkin flavor or "natural flavors" added, which I think can make them taste a bit too syrupy.

I really like a number of pumpkin ales and lagers, but I also think it's the sort of beer style that creates expectations that can never quite be lived up to. It sounds like something so pleasant you will want to drink many of them every day, every chance you get, straight through from Labor Day to Winter Solstice. However, most pumpkin beers have a flavor that is more intriguing than actually refreshing. They are best drunk either one or two at a sitting, or maybe in a flight of sample-size pours. If you're drinking five or six glasses of the same-brand pumpkin beer in a row, you're going to be dying for something a little less packed with spices.

Over the last month or so, I've been trying as many pumpkin beers as possible. Hopefully, you can find one you like before the trick-or-treaters arrive, or in the weeks that follow when the taste buds begin to hanker for a little nutmeg and cinnamon.

Here is my list:

Jolly Pumpkin La Parcela: The first pumpkin beer from the brewery with "pumpkin" in its name, this one also has cacao, but it really tastes more like a sour farmhouse ale, very bready and tart, with the actual pumpkin flavor and the cacao kind of in the background.

Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale: Some pumpkin beers come off as heavily dosed with nutmeg and cinnamon, but this one is much more understated. It has a mellow malt flavor to it, and a very light, but straightforward pumpkin bite. The initial lightness and quick bite make it one pumpkin beer you can enjoy for most of an evening.

Uinta Punk'n Harvest Ale: Another that smells and tastes almost more like a Belgian or farmhouse ale with an additional sweetness. It also tastes of caramel, clove and a strong ginger flavor. Though the latter flavor isn't advertised, it makes this beer for me. Because of that clove and ginger, it's something I would still drink around Christmas. Uinta also sometimes offers an oak-aged pumpkin ale I would like to try sometime.

Big Muddy Pumpkin Smasher: This malt beverage from Murphysboro in Southern Illinois really surprised me with a definite, but not overstated, mix of vanilla and light brown sugar. It's sweet, but not too sweet, and almost creamy.

Samuel Adams' Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale: Not really sure what is meant by double pumpkin - it claims 28 lbs. of real pumpkin per barrel, but I don't think it tastes strongly of pumpkin. However, it does have a very complex profile of spice, with nutmeg dominant, and strongly evokes the fall season with smoked malt that connects me with childhood memories of burning massive piles of leaves and inhaling the accompanying carcinogens. Honestly, I could see drinking this between the turkey and the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.

Smuttynose Pumpkin: I'm adding this one to the short list of pumpkin beers I'll seek out year after year. I had never had it before a month ago and was pleasantly stunned, first by the true pumpkin color of the pour, and then by strong nutmeg and cinnamon flavors along with a nice hops bite that ultimately delivers pumpkin flavor without hitting you over the head with the pumpkin, which would probably hurt. More than a good pumpkin beer, this one is just a good beer.

Southern Tier Pumking: The long-time favorite of many craft beer fans, though can be a love-it or hate-it kind of thing for some. I love that it actually tastes like a piece of pumpkin pie, with all the spices up front and right down to a bready, creamy finish that brings pie crust and whipped cream to mind. If Smuttynose is my new favorite, this one is the pumpkin beer I have returned to at least three years running, and feel like I must have at least once before the season is over.

New Holland Ichabod: Of all the pumpkin beers on this list, this is the one I've had the most overall. It has a really nice sweet and spicy balance to it, and just the right amount pumpkin scent and flavor. Strongly evocative of a crisp fall day, which I know is a vague thing to say, but I need to leave it at that. Not as many people seem to follow it as follow Pumking, but I would put these two beers neck and neck as my favorites of the style.

The Beer Wire
* Paste magazine reveals the winners of its pumpkin beer taste test.

* LA Weekly questions the demand for pumpkin beer.

* Guys Drinking Beer welcomes the arrival of the Four Horsemen. Sounds scary, but turns out it's just beer.

* The Tribune reports on local brewer 5 Rabbit's deal with Chipotle.

* The Examiner looks at local brewers who won medals at the Great American Beer Festival.

* Girls Like Beer Too explains how to take the Chicago craft beer scene to the next level.


Previously in The Beer Thinker:
* Tapping Lincoln Square
* Size Matters
* Lagunitas Changes Everything
* Make Beer, Not War
* Collaboration Brewing
* Summer Brew
* Mothership Goose


Dan O'Shea is The Beer Thinker. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on October 31, 2012

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