Tis’ The Season For Pumpkin Ales
“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” These now famous words are uttered by Charlie Brown pal Linus as he anxiously awaits the arrival of his imaginary hero each fall. And each year, poor Linus is disappointed as this supposed giant flying pumpkin fails to show, and he must again face ridicule from friends who cannot believe such an event can possibly happen. Each fall, beer enthusiasts await the arrival of a different kind of great pumpkin as well, but hardly have to hide their joy from one another. Of course, this is not the arrival of a giant flying pumpkin coming to deliver presents to deserving kids, and that might have something to do with it. (Not that pumpkin ale lovers have any less enthusiasm for their arrival than Linus does for The Great Pumpkin, it’s just that they can discuss their arrival openly.) These are pumpkin ales, arriving in bottled form, and their landing on shelves just about wherever you look. Each year, pumpkin beers seem to grow in popularity and recognition – at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, widely considered the nation’s most prestigious beer festival, pumpkin beers won Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals in the Field Beer (beers with any sort of vegetable added) category, a sweeping win that is hardly worth any ridicule.
At first glance, it might seem that such beers are perhaps a fad, a beer to take advantage of those who enjoy tasting something a little different and also absolutely cannot wait for the arrival of the fall season, and seem to go a little nuts at the first appearance of the round orange gourd. Look around, after all – there are pumpkins everywhere. They are outside every grocery store, on everyone’s front porch, and there’s most likely a pick your own event happening nearby you today. But beers with pumpkin used in the brewing process are far from fad. While tracking down actual ale recipes from colonial times can be somewhat difficult to do, it is known that brewers during those times used a variety of items to either flavor or create beer, since barley was simply not available to colonists at the time. One of the items used in its place was, in fact, pumpkin. There are some articles in beer history documents that reference Ben Franklin himself using pumpkin to produce beer.
These days, pumpkin is often diced up and added to the beer during early brewing stages to extract its flavor. For most of these ales though, it isn’t the pumpkin itself that adds the greatest amount of taste to these beers. Along with the actual pumpkin, breweries use a variety of spices – ones that you would find in pumpkin pies, of course, to flavor the final product. Nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and clove are all common, and depending on which ale you taste, you can find varying levels of spice from beer to beer. Some spice levels can be somewhat high, while others seem to let the spices run just underneath the overall flavor of the beer. Pumpkin ales can also be somewhat sweet, with a fair amount of malt used. No matter what, hop levels and any bitterness from the hops are low to just about non-existent. Many folks will tell you that even though they may enjoy pumpkin ales, due to the spices, it can be difficult to enjoy more than one or two at the most at one sitting. In my opinion, that can be pretty accurate. However, some of the pumpkin ales out there let all the flavors mesh together quite well, and let the added flavors accent the beer instead of being front and center. These can be highly and surprisingly drinkable.
With pumpkin ales becoming seemingly more popular each year, there are plenty to chose from and try. Is it possible that among fall seasonal, the pumpkin might replace the legendary Oktoberfest as the most popular? That one is definitely up for debate, and perhaps several seasons away to tell. But no matter where you go, you’ll likely find at least a couple on the shelf to pick up and taste, and on a cool fall day, take my word for it – they do seem to feel a bit fitting, as the leaves are swirling around outside and the trees begin to put on their annual show of colors. As with most seasonal beers, they are only out for a limited time, and with us well into October, their time is unfortunately already running out. I found that the Pumpkins I tasted which didn’t hit you completely over the head with spice levels or tasted too terribly much like pumpkin pie, but more like a good beer with some the typically used spices in it, were the most delicious and by far the easiest to drink. At any rate, the good news is that you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable discussing them with others – they can be very tasty, top notch seasonal beers, and you certainly don’t have to sit up all night in a pumpkin patch to find one either. Here’s a few that should be common in most stores, with a quick run-down of their flavor profiles.
(I must give a big thank you to the Wine Gourmet here in Roanoke for providing me with a chance to taste a lot of these!)
Dogfish Head (DE) Punkin Pumpkin Ale – this is often one of the most commonly found Pumpkin beers, and thankfully so. Punkin finds a very good balance between a luscious sweetness and the added spices, benefitting from an addition of brown sugar. In fact, this is definitely one where the spices are certainly there but do not hit you over the head, instead accenting the overall flavor. Among it’s most likeable characteristics is the body – It has a smooth, almost luxurious mouth feel. And at 7% ABV, there is a definite warming from the alcohol – consider it your own handheld way to warm up while enjoying the briskness of a cool fall day.
Heavy Seas (MD) The Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale – This is another very drinkable pumpkin ale. There is an even level of malt sweetness and the spices are a bit more up front than with some others, with tastes of cinnamon and nutmeg, but again, are not completely overdone. Again, this has a fairly big ABV, coming in at 8%, so it also has a nice warming effect from the alcohol.
New Holland (MI) Ichabod Pumpkin Ale – The pumpkin type spices are certainly present in this one, but without much of a heavy body or overly malty sweetness. Some Pumpkin Ales can be a bit on the heavy side, due to that sticky sweetness, and to some folks, almost seem like a dessert; this one is definitely not, more of a straightforward beer, and even has more of a hop presence than most.
Weyerbacher (PA) Imperial Pumpkin Ale – There is a particular balance in this one between the present pumpkin flavor, spices, caramel like sweetness, and the medium mouthfeel which works very well. To me, similar to the Dogfish Head Punkin, the body is smooth and somewhat velvety, without being heavy, and is one of the nice features of this one. Again, this one is a bit more of a straightforward beer but with solid balance between all the flavors and is very enjoyable.
Shooting Creek Pumpkin Ale – The friendly folks at nearby Floyd County’s Shooting Creek Brewery invited me down for a day when they were bottling this; as of right now this one is perhaps a week or two still from hitting the shelves, but luckily I got a sneak “peak”, or taste, of their version. When it does hit the stores, don’t miss this one either. There is a nice level of malty flavor in the form of yummy, fresh bread, a slightly more noticeable hoppyness than most others I tasted, and the spices, of which nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice are used, again do not hit you over the head but rather accent the beer very favorably. Basically, all these characteristics have their own room in the beer and work to make for another very drinkable version of the style. Don’t miss this.
Other commonly found Pumpkin Ales are Saranac’s (NY) and Post Road Pumpkin Ale (Brooklyn Brewery, NY). Both are good examples in case you’re out looking for other Pumpkin Ales.