It wouldn’t be fair to discuss pumpkin ales without a brief word on pumpkins first. Your standard jack-o-lantern pumpkin is relatively devoid of much other than a slightly sweeter squash like flavor. Roasting helps convert some starch to sugars but realistically a bowl of plain roasted pumpkin is still very much like a stringy squash with a smidgeon of light brown sugar. Most the “pumpkin” flavors and scents that people associate with pumpkin pies or pumpkin breads are attributable to the spices used such as brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Unless you spend the big bucks for some of the few varieties that really do have a more pronounced natural sweetness and a stronger pumpkin character (such as Cinderella, Fairytale, or Jaradale) the typical brewer is stuck having to compensate for a relatively flavorless gourd that people expect to taste like Aunt Bessie’s pie.
Brewing good pumpkin ale is not an easy task. In addition to some of the technical problems that the fibrous nature of pumpkin presents during the mashing process, brewers have to be particularly careful not to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the pumpkin with their choice of malt bill, hopping, and spice additions. Whether due to the pumpkin or the spices used most pumpkin beers are also sadly bereft of any notable lasting head. A good pumpkin beer is a study in balance and there is something distinctive about it that seems to celebrate fall and the harvest season.
Despite the challenges involved, every year when the leaves start to change and there is a little nip in the air, I and many others look forward to sampling the brewers’ best efforts at pumpkin ales. Like Linus in Charlie Brown, we hope that every autumn holds the possibility of the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. Here are some reviews of what I found while lurking in the pumpkin patch this year – even if August is a little early to be out in the pumpkin patch.
The Pumpkin Flavor Scale [1 lowest :5 highest] is based on the actual pumpkin flavor of the beer and not a general ranking of the beer.
Sam Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin [8.5 ABV 25 IBU] is a deep mahogany color with a spicy nose of ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It has a full rounded body with a velvety mouth feel. Sweeter caramel toasty flavors meld into licorice, nutmeg, allspice and ends with a warming but slightly lingering smoky bitterness. A beautiful malt profile threatens to over shadow the pumpkin flavors (a reported 28lbs per barrel). I really enjoyed the tremendous smoothness of this rich beer but it could have benefited from a little more aggressive/balanced hoppiness. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 3.25
Buffalo Bills America’s Original Pumpkin Ale [5.2 ABV 12 IBU] is light to medium amber in color with a light pumpkin scents. With a medium mouth feel the beer is a little doughy with little but even hoppiness throughout. Almost all the pumpkin character is upfront fading into a spicy hoppiness and a sweet finish. This beer is very even, balanced, and drinkable but has less overall pumpkin character than I was hoping for. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 2
Tommyknocker Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest Ale [5 ABV 15 IBU] is nut brown in color with a spicy molasses like nose. Initial sweet light caramel flavors are buoyed by a moderate biscuit body with a toasted nutty finish. Even with very little hopping, this beer is a good example of spicing overwhelming the pumpkin flavor. While slightly heavier in body than BB America’s Original Pumpkin Ale it is far lighter than the Sam Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 1.5
Post Road Pumpkin Ale [5 ABV 20 IBU] is light amber in color with a faint hint of pumpkin aroma which you had better enjoy because that is about all the pumpkin there is in this beer. A more effervescent body and slightly sour notes make me question either the quality of the pumpkins used or possibly some initial stages of infection. There are some slight caramel and nut flavors hidden in there but they are hardly worth the search. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: .5
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager [6 ABV 25 IBU] is almost orange in color with a strong aroma of pumpkin and spice. Mouth feel was smooth and balanced. Lightly sweet initially with subtle but distinct pumpkin flavors develop before finishing with hints of toffee. This lager takes full advantage of the smoothing inherent in the longer process of lagering to develop a light neutral base that showcases the longer ferment of the pumpkin and spices used. The result is a lighter bodied beer the exhibits more pumpkin character than many of the heavier ales reviewed. Pumpkin Flavor Scale 2.5
Uinta Punk’n Harvest Pumpkin Ale [4 ABV 10 IBU] touts 3% organic ingredients (pumpkin and spices). Medium to light orange in color this beer had and held the best head of any of the beers tasted. With initially earthy pumpkin aroma and medium to light mouth feel the first thing one notices about this beer is that it is less sweet than most pumpkin ales. There is a mild pumpkin flavor and some hints of crystal malt that finishes cleanly with a slight nutmeg and mild hoppiness. Lighter than most pumpkin beers, with the exception of the head, everything about this beer seemed toned down not necessarily in a bad way but more like a song you think you would like if you could just hear it better. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 2
Shipyard Pumpkinhead [4.5 ABV 24 IBU] is gold in color and had reasonable head retention. Medium in body with a smooth mouth feel, this beer is lightly spiced with earthy undertones, a hint of sweetness and a light but balanced hoppiness. It presents little actual pumpkin character but does have a slightly clove like finish. A little bit of everything but no standout flavors to either amaze or offend. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 1.5
Terrapin Pumpkinfest [6 ABV ? IBU] is another of the rare pumpkin lagers. Billed as a combination of Oktoberfest and pumpkin beer styles it is amber orange in color and has a spicy earthy pumpkin aroma. More full bodied but still displays more pumpkin presence than most other beers reviewed, the word that comes to mind is flavorful. Sweet darker caramel melds to a spicy middle and finishes with a balanced hop note. Bolder and more satisfying this beer will particularly appeal to the lovers of bigger Oktoberfest style beers. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 3
Heavy Seas The Great Pumpkin [9 ABV 25 IBU] is a cloudy orange amber with a creamy but short-lived head. The spicy nutmeg aroma is a forewarning of what is to come. With a robust mouth feel brief initial sweetness rapidly surrenders to a barrage of spices. Caramel toffee flavors board last before a swarm of warming alcohol, nutmeg and cloves. Actual pumpkin flavor is light to moderate and more noticeable in body and mouth before being drowned by grapeshot of spices – an AARGHuably good spice beer with a pumpkin base. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 2
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin [9 ABV 28 IBU] is a cloudy oak amber in color with moderate head retention. This beer is essentially a bigger version the Shipyard Pumpkinhead. Once again all the expected flavors are there but none are highlighted to really standout and make the drinking experience memorable. A smooth spicy sweet pumpkin ale whose only fault is perhaps over balance. As a specialty beer and for the price I was hoping for pumpthing more. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 2
Dogfish Punkin Ale [7 ABV 27 IBU] is a medium iced tea amber with distinct nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice aroma. It pours to a frothy dense head that will actually float a bottle cap. Initial bright spice and balanced hoppiness mellows into a brown sugar/caramel before finishing with a surprising amount of lingering pumpkin for a smooth finish. Flavorwise it is backwards from many pumpkin beers that offer some pumpkin aroma, a sweeter middle, and a spiced aftertaste. It is a welcome alternative and a great pick for a cool fall evening. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 2.5
Southern Tier Pumpking Ale [8.6 ABV 26 IBU] While available later than other pumpkin beers, no pumpkin beer review would be deemed complete without including Southern Tiers Pumpking Ale. Lighter amber in color with quickly dissipating head, this beer has a fantastic phantasmal aroma that smells like a your Aunt Nellie’s best pumpkin pie. A surprisingly complex beer, while lighter in body than many “imperial” pumpkin ales, Southern Tier wraps the autumn earthiness of pumpkin with complimenting spices in a sweet caramel envelope that once opened, makes you want to call Linus and tell him that the Great Pumpkin has indeed arrived. Honestly, I’ve got a couple ounces left in my glass and I’ve been swishing it around and huffing it because it is a beautiful thing and I’m half afraid of swallowing the bottle cap. Lacking an overly stated note or an easily described progression or initial, middle, and finish, this beer unfolds into a complex layering of interwoven flavors that (JEB forgive me) raises this NY beer in the top of the Southern Tier. Pumpkin Flavor Scale: 4