It is officially pumpkin season: that wonderful time of year when thousands of helpless gourds are mercilessly filleted by delighted children and nearly every beverage under the sun has “pumpkin spice” added to its title. Beer, as evidenced by the glut of pumpkin brews now crowding store shelves, is not immune to this orange menace. However, some pumpkin beers are better than others — some of them are rather good, too. Having done some dedicated research on my own, I enlisted my roommates to act as a taste testing panel for a set of unique pumpkin beers.
Before rushing to the results, I must provide a disclaimer: Among hardened beer aficionados, pumpkin beers, or seasonally spiced ales, are commonly regarded as a neighbor who goes overboard with the seasonal decorations, i.e., as impressive as they are, the novelty wears off after a few minutes. But as a beer enthusiast and college student—not an aficionado—I say, “oh, fill the steins to dear, old Maine.”
Up first was Fat Jack, a double pumpkin ale from Samuel Adams. It pours a dark russet color, with a foamy beige head and clocks in at 8.5 percent alcohol by volume, or “ABV.” Fat Jack is part of Samuel Adams’ small batch series, and because it boasts 28 pounds of pumpkin per every 31 gallons on its label, the tasting crew expected this brew to be overflowing with delicious pumpkin goodness. Sifting through the layers, we found a rich, toasty, biscuit and malt base; hints of the pie spices such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice and ginger; even hints of vanilla and brown sugar. But overall, very little pumpkin flavor was found, which actually makes a lot of sense: Pumpkin has very little flavor of its own. Overall it was the most drinkable, but also the most forgettable, in the lineup.
Next we tried Smashed Pumpkin, by Shipyard Brewing Co. Smashed Pumpkin is Pumpkin Head’s boozy big brother and was the strongest pumpkin beer we tried at 9 percent ABV. Crystal clear, amber-orange colored, it has a lingering cinnamon finish, accentuated by its fantastically high alcohol content. While the cinnamon and clove spiciness overpowered the molasses and bready vanilla notes, which made this beer a little imbalanced, no one seemed to mind. The panel of tasters repeatedly returned to this beer as the benchmark because of its caramel and spice notes, and also for its alcohol content.
Imperial Pumking, by Southern Tier, had the lowest alcohol content at a flat 8 percent ABV, but it was the most intense beer we tried. The aroma was big, spilling out of the glass in big vanilla and candied pecan notes. The flavors were equally immense, dominated by toasted brown sugar, gingerbread and graham cracker. Taking a sip, one taster said, “I’ve got it: Jelly Belly buttered popcorn.” This exclamation was so accurate that the group found it impossible to taste anything else in the beer afterwards. More dessert than beer, it was difficult to get past its sweetness. The panel tended to shun this beer, especially after the Jelly Belly comment, but if you enjoy sweeter beers, this could be a winner for you.
Long Trail’s Imperial Pumpkin was the darkest, most roasted tasting and the most understated of the group. At 8.6 percent ABV, the combination of roasted malt and nutmeg combined to give this beer a noticeably bitter aftertaste at first, especially in contrast to the Imperial Pumking. Dark caramel in color, without much of a head, we noted that the flavor was more like blackstrap molasses or a pumpkin pie with a slightly burnt crust — a welcome contrast to a very sweet bunch of ales. It did mellow as it warmed up, but the consensus was that this beer might have played it too safe, or just too close to the roasted end of the spectrum.
The tasting crew was struck by the diversity of this narrow flavor style and also by the alcohol content. But tasting is easy, compared to brewing. Brewing a pumpkin beer is difficult because its fate rests in the magical balance between sweetness and spice. If you like pumpkin lattes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin donuts, pumpkin cookies or have a thing for gourds, then give one of these brews a taste “while supplies last.”
Just don’t try them all at once.