True, they spend a fairly limited time on store shelves, as they are a seasonal beer. Often more known for their use of spices than anything, pumpkin ales are hardly the newest craze in craft beer, and let’s face it, are brewed with an item which arguably is at its most entertaining when launched out of a cannon. And I swear there are still folks who are otherwise very serious – perhaps too serious – craft beer fans who pretty much write off pumpkin ales almost immediately. It would seem, then, that the deck is stacked against these beers from the get go. Then maybe I’m a bit crazy to think so, but does anyone else think that pumpkin beers are becoming more and more interesting with each passing year? For the outside looking in, it might seem strange that there are as many as there are available to us. Sure, your local brewery might not want to spend the time it takes to deal with putting pumpkin flesh in their brewing equipment, but for many larger breweries, it almost seems to have become a required brew. Yet it’s not the number of them that are around that’s most interesting, it’s how some of these individual beers are becoming, well, more interesting in of themselves. Forget roasting the pumpkin before brewing with it, that almost seems old hat now. It’s some of the newer “treatments” to these beers, like aging them in barrels like your favorite stout, which are causing pumpkin ales to become more curious with each fall season that passes. For a beer that some people still write off as not worth the effort to try – a thought process I’m sure is still stuck along the lines of “I don’t want nutmeg in my beer” – this evolution is a fairly interesting one to watch, and if you do put out the effort, can be a delicious one too.
A couple weeks ago, I ran across what might be one of the finer examples of this evolution on my Untappd feed. (Just in case you’re not familiar with Untappd, it’s a social media app for beer with which you and other folks you follow “check in” the beers you are trying, and then rate and comment on them.) Normally, when someone checks in a beer using the app, a couple comments are made and then the check-in moves on without much further attention, much like a facebook post, giving way to newer check-ins. But I couldn’t help but notice how the comments for one particular beer check-in continued off and on for an entire evening, which was odd enough. Two whole days later, I was still getting notifications that folks were commenting about it – an Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine, aged in brandy barrels no less, brewed by Almanac Beer Company in California. Here’s the brewery’s own description:
“This is a beer made with real pumpkins. We hand-roasted over 500lbs of heirloom pumpkins from La Tercera Farms in Bodega Bay. The caramelized gourds were then added to our velvety American Barleywine and aged in brandy barrels for a year. Finally, we blended the barrel-aged beer with freshly brewed ale and added a delicate hint of pumpkin pie spices to round out this decadent autumn sipper.”
Lose any thought that it is perhaps not a “true” pumpkin beer. The comments I’ve seen are that the beer is absolutely delicious, so splitting hairs just isn’t an option.
Another similar and highly rated example comes from Colorado’s Avery Brewing. Take some roasted pumpkin meat, create a flavorful pumpkin ale with the typical spices a brewery might add, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, but then age it in rum barrels to add what Avery refers to as “suggestions of delicate oak and candied molasses”. “Rumpkin”, which debuted in 2011, has a fairly limited availability. This is unfortunate for many of us around the country, since it has earned a rating of 90 on beeradvocate.com, and a 99 on ratebeer.com. Cigar City Brewing also puts out a rum barrel aged version of their Good Gourd pumpkin ale called Good Gourd Almighty, and here in Virginia, Blue Mountain Brewery recently got in on the action by barrel aging an imperial pumpkin ale and adding cocoa nibs, creating “Spooky”. It would be impossible to tell what beer set the stage for these and other more recently produced barrel aged pumpkin ales, but one of the first I can recall tasting would be Heavy Seas’ Great’er Pumpkin, a bourbon barrel aged imperial version of their standard pumpkin ale, Great Pumpkin.
Sure, the great majority of pumpkin ales fall along typical lines. A malty, sweet-ish amber like ale with little to no hop presence is flavored with pumpkin pie type spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and the like. Some are thinner in body and less sweet, such as Devils Backbone’s new Ichabod Crandall, which I’ve heard two people refer to as a bit like a pumpkin soda with its spritzy carbonation. Others are sweeter and more fuller bodied, such as Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale, or the aptly named Pumking, from Southern Tier, which many consider to be the gold standard for pumpkin ales. What’s really noticeable in the better examples seems to be a deft touch between body, sweetness, and the spices used. Too much spicing, and it ends up being all you taste. The right amount means giving the beer its expected personality without overpowering the entire show. A more local example of this slightly heavier bodied but still adeptly made type of pumpkin ale comes from Williamsburg Alewerks – perhaps I’m a little biased since it’s from Virginia, but I’d even put it up against the Pumking itself.
Yet the beers which seem to be pushing the boundaries of the the pumpkin beer “style” seem to be examples that use barrel aging to add complexity to the beer, such as in the Rumpkin or Spooky, or ones which have had more traditional ingredients, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, as well as the pumpkin, added to a complimentary style such as a porter, stout, or in the case of the Almanac beer, a barleywine. Here in my own state of Virginia, this became clear a few years ago when Starr Hill brought out their Boxcar Pumpkin Porter. Immediately, the beer made sense. Add the fall gourd to a style of beer perhaps more considered for consumption when the temperatures turn cooler, such as a Porter, include typical spicing, and it all seemed to go together quite naturally. Another great example which has been out for some time now is a collaboration beer between Epic Brewing and DC Brau, called Fermentation Without Representation, which is also a pumpkin porter. It is a rich, dry roasty porter brewed with vanilla beans and features well balanced spicing. Southern Tier recently introduced an Imperial Stout brewed with pumpkins and spices called Warlock, which has been quickly racking up very good reviews. With any luck, this fine beer will make an appearance in Roanoke shortly.
Still others cross the pumpkin flavor and spices with other ingredients, such as in New Belgium’s Pumpkick, which is brewed with cranberries and lemongrass. Others breweries have tried adding some heat to the mix, adding all sorts of peppers to their pumpkin beer. There are pumpkin ciders, pumpkin sours, and yes, there have even been a couple shots at making pumpkin IPAs, believe it or not.
Last year, my fiancée and I lined up several pumpkin ales and held our own taste testing. Some friends of ours did the same, even doing it blindly. At the time, I felt like we had a good cross section of available pumpkin beers. I had no idea how far off that feeling would be this year. As this fall grew closer, and I began to hear of all the new tangents breweries were taking with the style, I began to think we might need to revisit our tasting. Leaving it to last year’s selection of beers seemed a little like going out trick or treating, but only hitting up three of your neighbors’ houses and calling it quits. The selection of treats – beers, in this case – now seems to exponentially get more varied with the more breweries and pumpkin ales you try out. Breweries are taking all sorts of different approaches to a style which is still too often written off as something that’s supposed to taste like your average pumpkin pie. And while no one’s saying that pumpkin ales are the latest true craze in craft beer, a rum barrel aged version or two just might make you reconsider it, if only for a couple months.