David and I wrote this article last fall for Eastsider magazine, but it ended up not getting published due to space issues. Since it's that time of year again, and pumpkin beers have begun to creep onto shelves, we figured this post might help some people out. I've updated it for current events.
Pumpkin ales have a variety of ingredients, the most common being spices and, of course, pumpkin, although some beers have a suspicious "natural flavors" listed on the label instead of listing pumpkin itself. The spices most often used are cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Used in the proper proportions, these flavors can create a wonderful beer that pairs well with a Thanksgiving dinner or other savory meal. On the flip side, when a brewery goes overboard with the spices, pumpkin beers can go very, very wrong.
But how to know which pumpkin beers to sample and which to avoid? Well, we have lent ourselves to the tasting task and tested nine pumpkin beers that we could find on local shelves to assist you in your pumpkin pick.
To start, we went with Michelob’s seasonal offering, Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale. This beer claims to be brewed with spices and "Golden Delicious pumpkin," and yields a solid 5.5 % ABV. It pours a gold to deep amber color and smells of caramelized sugar, malt, and spices. However, aside from the very pleasant aroma, this beer tastes more like a weak lager. The mouth feel is very thin. Overall, this beer is not awful or offensive, but there are better choices.
We followed that up with a Shipyard Brewing Company Pumpkinhead Ale. Landing on the lower side of the beers we tried, it is 4.5% ABV. The label is one of two that only claims to be brewed with "natural flavors." We were not sure if pumpkin is actually in there or not. Despite our label misgivings, we thought this beer was better than the last. It's colored a light, clear amber, and smells a little like a white wine with spices. It tastes inoffensive, like a weak, bready macro-lager. On the positive side, the heavy carbonation of this beer could cut through a rich meal, and it is not bitter at all.
Third on the list, was America’s Original Pumpkin Ale, from "Buffalo Bill’s Brewery," brewed with pumpkin and spice. We read the find print on the label, and noticed that this beer is actually contracted out to production at the Pyramid Breweries. It weighs in at 5.2% ABV. This is a hazy amber color when poured, and smells very floral, with citrus and nutmeg notes that may have come from the aromatic hops used during brewing. It tastes more lager than ale like, with an overdose of clove that does not mesh well with the citrus and nutmeg we picked up on earlier.
By definition, there has to be a worst of the tasting batch, but some are so bad that you try them once and never want to try them again. We encountered such a beer in the Post Road Pumpkin Ale from Brooklyn Brewery. It stands at a moderate 5% ABV, and is brewed with pumpkin and spices. This beer pours very frothy, and has a soapy aroma. It tastes very spicy and slightly salty with light carbonation and a bitter finish that lingers. Overall, we felt that this was a very poorly constructed pumpkin ale.
A common theme here is that many of the pumpkin beers that are labeling themselves ales don’t really taste like ales at all, but rather as if they were produced from a blander lager base. In contrast, the most ale-like beer we tried was the New Holland Ichabod Pumpkin Ale at 5.2% ABV. The label states that it is brewed with pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It pours a hazy, light amber color with a froth that quickly dissipates. The nutmeg used in brewing lends a slight meaty, spicy smell that those who cook with nutmeg will be familiar with. Overall, this is a very solid pumpkin ale that is not too bitter, not too vegetal, not too spicy, and has a hint of saltiness. This beer would pair well with a rich meal on account of the balance of flavors that it possesses.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale followed at 7% ABV. This is a richer beer than the others, with a nice body and tasty maltiness that almost demands to be matched with a piece of pumpkin or pecan pie. The notes of toffee that are obvious but not overpowering add a nice quality to this pumpkin beer.
Next up is the Schlafly Pumpkin Ale, which is an impressive 8% ABV. Brewed with pumpkin and spices, this pours a dark caramel color. This beer had a very odd aroma. The alcohol was definitely there, and something else, something we could only label as an "industrial" smell. It was not pleasant. Tastes of spice, malt, and is a little hot (alcoholic) going down. That sensation is to be expected with beers that have a higher ABV, although some hide it better than others. Even though the alcohol flavor predominates, the spices that are used balance each other very well. In the end, we just couldn’t get over the odd aroma.
We also tried the Pumpkinhead’s bigger brother, Shipyard’s Smashed Pumpkin. This is one of the two beers on the list available in a larger bottle only. Larger bottles in craft beer usually indicate one or both of two things: a limited release and a high alcohol content. This has both, being seasonal and also having an ABV of 9%. This pours a copper color, and smells of cinnamon and malt. It has a buttery sweetness, but is still a little hot due to the high ABV. This beer also states that it is brewed with "natural flavors," but despite the shady terminology, Shipyard produces a well balanced beer.
We saved our favorite for last, Southern Tier's Pumking. We liked this beer so much last year we bought a case, and cracked open a year old bottle last week. It ages very well, getting richer in flavor and a little more mellow over time. It’s available in some stores in Ohio (but not Kentucky), and is currently on tap at Nicholson's downtown and the Dilly Deli Cafe in Mariemont. Also in a large bottle at 9% ABV, this beer is brewed with pureed pumpkin. This pours a reddish, coppery color, and smells of butter, toffee, and malt. The medium-to-thick mouthfeel tastes of sweet caramel, butter, and pumpkin, with a slight bitterness in the finish. This beer is very well crafted, and very rich, so we suggest sharing this bottle with a friend for dessert. Nicholson's paired it with some cinnamon ice cream, and we made a float with it last week, which I thought was very tasty.
While pumpkin beers might not be for everyone, we tasted a variety of beers that spanned from light to intensely flavorful. Even though we tried nine different beers, and there are still quite a few in the market that we didn’t sample, and distribution laws will have a few beers available in Ohio, but not Kentucky. If you’re feeling a little adventurous and festive, we suggest you pick up a six pack and try some yourself before the season is out and they disappear until next year!