Few types of beer symbolize the American craft beer movement quite like the cult favorite seasonal: the pumpkin beers. A riff on early settler’s use of squash for fermentable sugars today’s pumpkin beers are often closer to pie-in-a-bottle, and they have a devout and fervent following of beer lovers who drive dozens of breweries to produce their own take on the gourd-laden brews. Every year the number of pumpkin beers to choose from grows, and we’ve tackled a dozen locally available examples for the first Beer of Tomorrow Pumpkin Beer Showdown!
Pumpkin beers are a strange phenomenon in the craft beer world. The beer has some historical claim, but there is no typical “style” associated with pumpkin beers, and they can run the gamut from light bodied and heavily spiced ales to high gravity and even barrel aged imperial stouts with every shade in between.
But which of the dozens of pumpkin beers should you reach for? Recommending a “best” pumpkin beer is nearly impossible as everyone likes something a little different in their squash-brews. Some people prefer the sweet and candy-like notes while others want an earthy pie-like beer. The problem of recommending something that is so dominated by individual preference is compounded by this author’s dislike of nearly the entirety of the genre of pumpkin beers.
I value balance in beer, and many of my favorite beers showcase a masterful balance of hops, malts, and yeast flavors. Historically I’ve been turned-off by the overly spiced, too sweet, and out-of-balance profiles of pumpkin beers. Site co-founder Julie however loves a good pumpkin beer, and it was with her urging that we assembled a small tasting panel to discover what qualities of pumpkin beer are most sought-after.
The Set Up
We gathered 12 different locally available pumpkin beers; only eschewing the macro-brewed examples from Shocktop and Blue Moon. The line-up covered everything from a pumpkin lager, to an oak-aged 10%ABV imperial ale, to a cider and even a cellared bottle of Stone’s pumpkin-based collaboration from 2011.
With the beers collected, two friends joined Julie to form a three-woman tasting panel for an evening of gourdy brews. Wanting to focus mainly on the beverages we kept food-pairings simple with a selection of cheeses, some spiced-cookies, and the obligatory pumpkin pie!
The beers would be presented in a series of flights – each containing three beers – that aimed to highlight the differences in each of the beers. Our goal was not to crown a “best of show” but instead to tease-out what elements each taster looked for in a pumpkin beer, and which beers on offer showcased those elements the best.
First up was a glass of one of the more iconic craft pumpkin beers, Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, to get the taster’s palates warmed-up and set a base-line of what I think is one of the better examples of pumpkin beers. When facilitating a tasting of this sort I find it helpful to begin the session with a “no pressure” beer to enjoy while going over the agenda and talking about guidelines and expectations.
After getting settled in the panel dove into the first flight which featured the lowest alcohol beer of the evening – Uinta Brewing’s Punk’N, a year-old bottle of the Stone / The Bruey / Elysian Brewing Collaboration La Citrueille Celeste de Citracado, and the only lager of the night – Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin Lager.
The Stone collaboration beer proved to be popular with a complex array of unique flavors. Not a traditional pumpkin beer, the amber ale eschewed spices for more esoteric ingredients like lemon verbena, fenugreek, and birch bark – which provided a distinct woody character. The Punk’N however was more like forgettable pumpkin pie in the bottle, and it didn’t really speak to any of the tasting panel.
The panel was agreed on the favorite of the flight: the crisp, pale(er) lager from Wisconsin. The clean lager character let the delicate squash flavor through on palate, and the finish was pleasantly dry(er). Lakefront Pumpkin Lager is an odd-gourd in a field of ales, and I found it a refreshing alternative to the heavier spice-forward brews to come.
Flight #2: Blind Tasting
For the next three-beer flight of the evening I wanted to throw the ladies a curve ball and present the beers as a blind tasting. The idea was to serve the three most common and easy-to-find craft pumpkin beers (at least in our experience of shopping for them in Los Angeles) and discuss which elements of the beers were most enjoyable without any preconceived notions about the brands or labels of the beers.
The three contenders in this flight were one of the first commercially available craft pumpkin beers: Buffalo Bill’s Brewery Pumpkin Ale, Shipyard Brewing’s Pumpkin Head, and the Boston Beer Co Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin.
Surprisingly the Buffalo Bill’s ale missed with all of the tasters. It was mild in flavor, and while drinkable it lacked any memorable qualities. The first of the Sam Adams offerings was also on the mild side, but the darker malts and heavier body provided more interest. One taster called it “A flannel shirt beer.”
The blind tasting exposed a division in the panel regarding what each taster was looking for in a pumpkin beer. Two women preferred an assertive spice character and a lighter body, and one looked for more squash flavor and a more substantial malt body. The Pumpkin Head was favored by the majority of tasters for its floral notes and distinctly sharp cinnamon flavor, and the panel appreciated the hop flavors that were present among the heavy spice and sweeter finish. I found it to be far too cloying, and was off-put by the dominance of the candy-like cinnamon flavor.
Flight #3: The Big Beers
After a brief interlude for some pumpkin pie and a palate-refreshing glass of pumpkin hard cider from Ace Cider (which was unanimously enjoyed) the tasters settled in for a flight of bigger, more robust pumpkin beers. While the previous beers sampled topped out at 6%ABV, the beers in this flight were between 8% and 9%ABV. These premium pumpkin beers were all packed in bombers – perfect for sharing.
This flight featured the Boston Beer Co Fat Jack, Shipyard’s imperial pumpkin offering Smashed Pumpkin, and the collaboration between Epic Brewing from Utah and DC Brau: Fermentation Without Representation. This flight was clearly a cut above the other pumpkin beers sampled, and the imperial-style ales showcased a richer palate of flavors than most of the previous offerings.
It was tough to pick out a favorite among the three excellent pumpkin beers as each taster had their own darling and each of the bombers of pumpkin beer brought something unique to the tasting. The Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin was a sweet and cinnamon-forward brew that, at 9%ABV, had a deceptively light body. The Fat Jack was robust and malty with a good balance of spices, and it surprised the tasters with its quaffability. Epic’s Fermentation without Representation was my favorite of the whole night; it was bold and rich with heavy cocoa and coffee notes and just enough spice to stand up to the heavy malt body.
It seems that the bigger and more porter-like beers are the best way to showcase the spices and flavors that the panel was looking for in a pumpkin beer. Even the taster who preferred the lighter beers was quite fond of the wheat-heavy Smashed Pumpkin. When it comes to pumpkin beers, go big or go home!
A Big Finish and an Addendum
In addition to the third flight there was one final beer I had saved for the tasters: a snifter of Uinta’s Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale. We all had high hopes for the 10.3% barrel-aged entry from Uinta’s Crooked line of specialty beers. The specialty ale is beautifully packaged in a cork-finished Champagne bottle and it came highly recommended. Everything looked good on paper and everyone was excited to give it a try.
Unfortunately the tasting’s most expensive beer disappointed our expectations, and the Oak Jacked was unanimously derided as far too cloying with spice and sweetness. Even as the beer warmed it was difficult to perceive the complexity through the spices and syrup-sweet body. Maybe after a year of time in the cellar this would be a more drinkable imperial pumpkin ale, but as it was it ranked near the bottom of the beers by all the tasters (and myself).
An Additional Contender
A few days after the official tasting one of the tasters tracked down a bottle of the elusive Hangar 24 Gourdgeous; a Pumpkin beer that is part of the Redland’s brewery’s Local Fields series which uses hundreds of pounds of fresh, locally harvested, pumpkins. We had hoped to get the beer in time for the official tasting, but we were able to reconvene the panel to sample this local treat.
Gourdgeous would have fit in perfectly in the third flight: it was big, roasty, and full of complex flavors. The imperial porter was heavy on the nutmeg and the roasted malts provided a distinct coffee note. “It’s like a slice of pie and a cup of coffee,” remarked one of the tasters. Gourdgeous is also the only locally brewed pumpkin beer that we sampled, and we’re happy to say that it stood up to the other favorites of the tasting!
Findings and Recommendations
The tasting party was a success on every level! I was able to sit down with a small group of friends and facilitate a productive and interesting discussion on beer, we were able to make some definitive selections from the line-up of a dozen beers, we may have ever converted one of the tasters who was previously unsure about pumpkin beers, and even I – with my disdain for the too-sweet and too-spiced beers – was able to find a couple that I not only found drinkable but that I’d actually seek-out.
These were some of the most lauded pumpkin beers that we sampled:
- Hangar 24 – Gourdgeous: a rich pumpkin porter that showcased the best balance of malt and spice. A favorite of all the tasters.
- Epic – Fermentation Without Representation: Another excellent porter that focuses on the chocolate and coffee notes more than the squash and spice.
- Shipyard – Pumpkin Head: Found to be the best of the spice-forward and sweeter pumpkin beers.
- Dogfish Head – Punkin Ale: At 7%ABV it was on the higher-end of the 12oz bottled beers, and the balance of dark malts and spices make this our over-all favorite pumpkin beer.
- Lakefront Pumpkin Lager – The lager is a refreshing change from the heavier ales, and all of the tasters found it both balanced and drinkable.
There were dozens of other highly rated pumpkin beers that we were unable to procure for the tasting, and beers like Southern Tier Pumpking, Schlafly Pumpkin Ale, and the multiple offerings from Elysian Brewing are considered some of the best pumpkin beers in the country. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to try those sometime soon.
Pumpkin Beers are a hot topic in the craft beer world with more original beers being brewed every year. Even if you have not been a fan of the “pumpkin pie in a bottle” profiles of many craft pumpkin ales we are sure that with a little experimentation you can find a pumpkin beer that you will enjoy. Like everything else in craft beer pumpkin ales can be an acquired taste, and just like hop bombs, sour beers, or barrel aging you can develop you taste for them with a little experimentation and perseverance.
The key to maintaining an adventurous palate is to never stop trying new things! Even if you haven’t liked a style or a beer in the past, don’t swear it off forever, and never say never. Your tastes change, and one day even I might become a pumpkin beer fiend.
Beer writers make hay with pumpkin beer posts, and there is no shortage of good top-ten lists and explorations of the genre. Here are a few additional posts on the subject:
- Serious Eats - 6 Unusual Spins On Pumpkin Beer
- Serious Eats – Can Pumpkin Beer Be Serious Beer
- The New School – The Great Pumpkin Beer Debate: Squashing the Controversy
- 1000 Beers - Top 10 Best Pumpkin Beers
- Paste Magazine – The 10 Best Pumpkin Beers