In 1923, when The New York Times asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the adventurer quipped: “Because it’s there.” That’s not the most promising mantra to cling to — Mallory perished on the mountain the following year — but I fear it’s one that many brewers fall back on when pumpkin beer season rolls around.
We’re all rational adults. Why are we putting pumpkin in our beer? Just because it’s there? Clearly, the market demands it — Oreos, Pringles, and Jell-O all make pumpkin spice products, and Starbucks has been drizzling squash into its lattes for ten years now. But must our craft beer makers jump on the bandwagon?
Clearly, I’ve harbored doubts about this fall treat. But then I looked over some past Beerhunter articles, and I realized that I am not exactly a purist. I have tried, and enjoyed, all sorts of nuts, flowers, fruits, and roots in my pint glass.
So this month I stopped by Table & Wine in West Springfield and picked up 12 pumpkin beers from craft breweries around the country. I needed to find out: are any of them good enough to convert a skeptic like me? Or are most of them just sugar and spice, not anything nice?
Turns out a few of them aren’t half bad. Here’s how my taste test went down:
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery; Milton, DE
A good pumpkin ale doesn’t skimp on the beer in favor of flavoring. Dogfish Head got the memo. Unlike most pumpkin ales, this is a brown ale rather than an amber, and it tastes creamy and thick without going down heavy. Allspice and nutmeg are easy to detect, but they come through in service of the pumpkin flavor, which has a nice brown-sugary richness. I may be a pumpkin cynic, but I’d drink a whole glass of this.
Long Trail Brewing Company, Bridgewater Corners, VT
Unfiltered Pumpkin Ale
Unlike some pumpkin ales, the flavor here is backed by a truly well-made beer. The ale’s deeper color — cloudy and light-brown, rather than yellow-gold — speaks to its malty, earthy taste. The pumpkin is noticeable, but here the flavor provides a subtle accent, not a candy coating. Any taste of spice is negligible. Not bad for a seasonal variety, but it won’t please pumpkin lovers who harbor a sweet tooth.
Harpoon Brewery; Boston and Windsor, VT
Unfiltered Pumpkin Ale
Harpoon nailed it. The pumpkin flavor in this variation on the brewery’s UFO (Unfiltered Offering) series tastes sweet and full, and it blends smoothly and naturally with the beer. It’s a flavor that goes down easy, with nothing bitter or acidic about it.
Troegs Brewing Company; Hershey, PA
Master of Pumpkins
Troegs brews this variety with a French saison yeast, so if you like Belgian-style beers, this may be the pumpkin ale for you. I appreciated this one’s nice, full pumpkin flavor, which would benefit from — dare I say it? — a touch more sweetness. Instead, the beer delivers an overwhelming level of spice, particularly clove. Interesting to taste, but that wall of spice is hard to get past.
Sea Dog Brewing Company; Portland, ME
Do you love cinnamon? You might enjoy this more than I did. A burst of pumpkin hits the front of your tongue right away, but the beer doesn’t have the body to back up that bold flavor. Thankfully, that means no syrupy mouthfeel. But when you add a strong cinnamon aftertaste, a thin brew like this simply tastes fragrant.
Cisco Brewers; Nantucket
Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale
Points awarded for cutest beer name and nice amber-gold color; points deducted for the two-dimensional taste. This is a drinkable ale, not too sweet, with a touch of spice, but underwhelming. I would sip it for a while, but wouldn’t recommend a hearty pour.
Ithaca Beer Company; Ithaca, New York
Speaking of not-sweet: this dyspeptic misfire is short on both pumpkin and beer. The flavoring is flat and borderline acrid, with a funky acidic aftertaste. Whatever secret ingredients went into this one really overpower the beer. Sorry, Ithaca — this one’s hard to stomach.
Weyerbacher Brewing Company; Easton, PA
Imperial Pumpkin Ale
In terms of alcohol content, this one’s a heavyweight, and it drinks darker, stronger, and sweeter than most of its rivals here. But there’s no discernible pumpkin taste. Instead, this one relies heavily on spice. Its bold, mulled taste is memorable, but I found that medicine-chest quality overpowering. Consider cooking with it, but don’t knock one back too quickly, or your breath will smell like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom for a week.
Southern Tier Brewing Co; Lakewood, NY
Another beast on the ABV scale, this ale smells exactly like pumpkin pie (read: sugar and nutmeg), and for the first few sips it delivers on that sweet pie flavor. After that, a harsh aftertaste starts to accumulate, and it sticks around on your tongue for a good while. I’m not sure who this beer is for, since it starts too sweet and finishes too bitter. It’s a brave experiment, but it just doesn’t settle.
Blue Point Brewing Co; Long Island, NY
The label on the bottle reads “malt beverage,” which doesn’t bode well, and the contents only confirmed my expectations. This beer has traces of cinnamon and pumpkin flavoring, but the brew is so muted that it hardly tastes like anything. Hide the label from me, and I’d assume I was tasting a Pumpkin Bud. Not good.
New Holland Brewing; Holland, MI
Ichabod Pumpkin Ale
Like the fabled horseman, this beer seems to have lost its head completely. The sweetness level is on point, and it doesn’t go overboard on the spices. But this amber ale is too watery, and the flavors dissipate almost immediately. If you’re desperate for pumpkin, this unassuming option will do, but aside from that, there’s no good reason to drink this beer.
Shipyard Brewing Company; Portland, ME
Beer lovers and pumpkin lovers alike will be let down by this low-level brew, which swaps spice and bold flavor for a thin, generic ale bolstered by a dollop of honey flavor. Seasonal beers should add a new perspective, but selections like this one remain firmly two-dimensional.
∎ This is just the tip of the fall flavor iceberg. Adventurous beer tasters should consider trying Maple Pecan Nut Brown Ale from Abita Brewing in Louisiana and the Chai Porter from Throw Back Brewery in New Hampshire. Oh, and it’s not too late to sample your local Oktoberfests — but the clock is ticking!
∎ If you’re in the hilltowns, check out this year’s GrowlerFest, featuring ceramic beer growlers handmade and decorated by 15 local artists. The exhibit runs through Dec. 2 at 54 Main St. in Cummington.
∎ And just to get you hungry: Ben & Jerry’s is now making craft beer ice cream in collaboration with New Belgium Brewing. The first offering: Salted Caramel Brown-ie Ale, which combines the Colorado brewery’s brown ale with fudge brownies and salted caramel swirls. New Belgium, in turn, has a new chocolate-caramel brown ale of the same name. Both cross-over items will be sold nationally come November.•
“The Beerhunter” appears monthly. Hunter Styles can be reached at email@example.com.