Pumpkin Ale: Your guide to understanding this season’s trendiest brews (and finding the good ones)

by | Sep 29, 2014 | EAT DRINK

Pumpkin beers inspire mixed feelings across the wide spectrum of American beer drinkers: disgust, confusion, joy, ambivalence, and others mix and pile upon each other, much like the nearly identical pumpkin beers do, sitting upon the shelves of any local purveyor of fine alcoholic beverages.

Pumpkin beers inspire mixed feelings across the wide spectrum of American beer drinkers: disgust, confusion, joy, ambivalence, and others mix and pile upon each other, much like the nearly identical pumpkin beers do, sitting upon the shelves of any local purveyor of fine alcoholic beverages. At this point, pumpkin ales are hardly new to any consumer. Informed craft beer drinkers have seen them for years. Perhaps they have a consistent favorite that they pick up every year, or perhaps they roll their eyes upon seeing the multitudes of semi-witty pumpkin-based names on shelves.

More casual craft consumers are no doubt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices they have in front of them when perusing the beer section; almost every pumpkin beer has a similar description, proclaiming use of pumpkin combined with baking spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Often, the spice aspect overwhelms the flavor profile, leading to a drink that has very little similarity to other beer styles, seeming more like fruitless apple cider, with mild pumpkin and malt flavors bringing up the rear.

Understandably, pumpkin beer is not for everyone. The more analytical craft fans don’t have much complexity to observe and pick apart, and curious first-time buyers may be put off of the category as a whole after one sip. Nonetheless, breweries across the country seem to be in a race to get their pumpkin beers out as early as possible. Presumably, there is a market for these products, as a few additional breweries every year seem to have their own pumpkin beer.

In this race to get product to market, breweries have begun encroaching on summer seasonal territory, with some releases coming out as early as August. This early autumn undoubtedly raises some questions for the average consumer: first, simply, “Why?” and secondly, “Where are these pumpkins coming from?” The answer to question one has already partially been answered: the seasonal race. However, there is still the fact that breweries always seem to be a few months ahead of actual seasonal change. Unless every domestic brewer is living in an alternate dimension, several months removed from our own, and exporting their product via wormhole or other artifice, there is probably a slightly more reasonable explanation for this.

While the many brewery collaborations on shelves may make brewers seem like some merry band of brothers, it’s a business just like any other business. That means competition. There are currently over 3,000 breweries in U.S., more than there have been since the 1870s, according to Brewer’s Association. With the amount of breweries in Virginia, as well as those whose beers make it to Virginia, it’s not exactly surprising that there is a constant race for shelf space.

Competition is one thing, but there is another factor to consider: shelf life, or lack thereof. While beer that is approximately eight percent alcohol or above, bottle-conditioned or unfiltered, and not hop-forward, definitely passes as palatable (sometimes even greatly improved) for months or years beyond its bottling, consumers will only buy something that says “summer” or “fall” on it for a certain amount of time. With the abundance of choices growing in step with the amount of breweries in the world, some releases with less notoriety are bound to sit around store shelves for weeks or months before being picked up by a curious customer, being discounted, or being subjected to beer diaspora by being sent to the “mix a six” section. Breweries have to allow for the possibility of their products sitting around for a while, so it would only make sense to brew a little ahead of seasonal schedule. A pumpkin beer released in October might sit around until December, and by that point, winter seasonals have appeared. It’s a vicious cycle for brewers, but, seemingly, an inescapable one.

As to the manner in which breweries are making pumpkin beers in the middle of summer, there are several possibilities. Pumpkins become ripe towards the end of summer in America, so the pumpkins used in beers that appear in August are imported through the seasonal wormhole–or, more likely, brewers actually use pumpkin puree, or extract. Most breweries are up front about the state of their gourds, listing ingredients on their website or the actual bottle label. Even the notoriously early/extremely popular Southern Tier Pumking has ingredients listed on the label; it employs pumpkin purée. So the mantra of many a craft drinker, “buy fresh, buy local” doesn’t really hold true in many cases, as there’s a good chance most pumpkin purée or juice comes from a can, probably not a local farm. Dogfish Head is one of the exceptions to this phenomena: their Punkin Ale uses “pumpkin meat” or “real pumpkin,” depending on whether one is reading their website or their labeling.

In a way, the pumpkin beer wave seems contrary to the ideals of American craft brewing. Craft brewers and their fans champion originality, freshness of ingredients, and the end products that the ingredients contribute to, as well depth of flavor. Pumpkin brews are all very similar, utilize adjuncts that are only fresh in some cases, and are generally unbalanced in terms of flavor and aroma, due to the use of spices that overpower both pumpkin–a very mild flavor–and base beers that would not have much character on their own. That said, there are some very pleasant exceptions to the norm, for anyone that feels that they are left wanting more from the typical fizzy pumpkin pie.

He Said (Belgian-Style Tripel)/He Said (Baltic-Style Porter) – Elysian Brewing/21st Amendment Brewery (Seattle, WA/San Francisco, CA)

21st Amendment Brewery is perhaps best known for their maligned/beloved summer seasonal, Hell or High Watermelon, a wheat beer made with–you guessed it–watermelon. There is already a precedent for pumpkin-and-spice beers on the market, so the He Said beers are probably slightly less polarizing to consumers. Where Hell or High Watermelon adds an unexpected ingredient to offset what would otherwise be a pretty straightforward wheat beer, the He Said Tripel takes a more subtle approach, cleverly integrating herbs and spices into a style that is already largely driven by the spicy, fruity characteristics of Belgian yeast strains, also utilized in this particular tripel.

The intertwining yeast and herbal characteristics produce a wide variety of flavors and aromas, such as baking spices like nutmeg and clove, apple, some subtle banana and pear, and sweet raisin. The pumpkin purée and juice used are not very noticeable, although they do appear slightly in the flavor profile as the beer warms. Again, the yeast and adjuncts seem intertwined, so it is difficult to isolate the tarragon and galangal (a rhizome similar to ginger), but they undoubtedly contribute to the complexity of the beer. The spritely carbonation plays off of the spices nicely, making what could have been an overly sugary beer fairly easy-drinking.

The other He Said is a Baltic Porter brewed with a German lager yeast. That yeast is an interesting choice, as lager yeasts ferment for longer, and at a lower temperature, which usually produces a beer with less intense, more nuanced flavors. Baltic Porters are similar to imperial stouts (both are styles of ale), bursting with big, rich malt flavors, and a lager is practically at the other end of the spectrum, with more subdued malt flavors. Perhaps this choice was made to let the special ingredients in this beer shine, which they do. The pleasant cinnamon and licorice-like caraway seed sit atop a base of dark chocolate and coffee roast. The slightly buttery and vegetal pumpkin flavors are more pronounced in this beer than they were in the tripel.

The beer feels big and full, but not syrupy, like some malt-forward, high alcohol beers have the tendency to be. If all brewers could make pumpkin beers as cleverly conceived and well-executed as the two He Saids, perhaps many craft fans wouldn’t be so averse to the idea. Both beers come in a combined four pack of twelve ounce cans, and are eight point two percent alcohol by volume.

Spooky – Blue Mountain Barrel House (Arrington, VA)

Blue Mountain is undoubtedly one of the most well-rounded and well-liked breweries in Virginia. Brews like Full Nelson and Kölsch 151 are part of a year-round lineup that have become reliable favorites for many, due to their well-balanced flavor profiles, and their being reliable examples of the styles they claim to be. Blue Mountain’s Barrel House beers are their avenue for experimentation, a host of creative, mostly barrel-aged beers that range from yeast-forward, Belgian-inspired brews to massive stouts. Spooky, a recent addition to their Barrel House repertoire, is an ale brewed with pumpkin flavoring and cocoa nibs, then bourbon barrel aged. From the list of ingredients and processes alone, it sounds like an overwhelming beer, but in usual Blue Mountain fashion, balance prevails.

Immediately apparent in the nose of the beer is the scent of bourbon, followed by subtle cocoa, some vanilla (likely from the oak barrels), as well as some malt and caramel. The flavor follows with more big, but pleasant, bourbon notes, some vegetal flavors, like pumpkin and corn, and more vanilla from the oak. The beer is rounded out by an absolutely luscious, silky smooth mouthfeel. Interestingly, only a faint amount of spice is detectable in the aroma and flavor, making this beer stand out from the pack even more than it already would. Despite the eight point two ABV, this beer is very easy to drink, so be a good friend and share a 750 milliliter with someone who can sit and sip for a while.

Punkin Ale – Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Milton, DE)

Dogfish Head pride themselves on making unusual, or in their terms, “off-centered” beers. Among them are “beer-wine hybrids,” brews concocted based on archaeological evidence from ancient civilizations, and seasonal beers that veer a bit off the path. With this precedent set, it is curious that their fall seasonal is a spiced pumpkin beer, as that is not completely unheard of for a fall seasonal (as has been made obvious thus far). According to Dogfish Head’s website though, Punkin Ale was first made in 1994, well before the pumpkin beer craze of recent years.

The spices chosen (cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice) are well chosen. Each spice flavor complements the other, while not completely drowning out the base beer, a brown ale. All are evident in the aroma, along with toasted bread, vanilla, bubblegum, date, brown sugar (also added in the brewing process), and a slight bit of umami (pleasant savory smell/taste). The taste follows with all of same characteristics of the smell.

The pumpkin used is a bit hard to detect, but may add a bit to the body, which is slightly more substantial than that of a typical brown ale, a British style known for its mild, malt-forward characteristics. The style lends itself well to a pumpkin beer, as it is substantial enough to provide a base, but not so rich in flavor that it competes for territory occupied by the adjuncts used. On the downside, most of the subtleties present in brown ales are hard to detect here, but to be fair, Punkin Ale is a pumpkin beer first, and a brown ale second. At seven percent ABV, this beer’s alcohol content is right around that of most IPAs, and it comes in four packs of twelve ounce bottles.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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