Thursday, October 17, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Pumpkin Beers

     Since it’s the Halloween season I thought I’d do a post about the brew of the season—pumpkin beers.  By doing so I may be risking alienating (or boring) any non-American readers, because pumpkin beers appear to be a nearly exclusive American beverage.  Also, these beers are probably pushing the “exotic” title, as due to their type’s popularity explosion in the past decade or so they’re probably more like “slightly unusual.”  But what the hell—I want to post about at least one food or beverage with a tie to Halloween this month, so let’s get on with it.
     In researching pumpkin beers, I was surprised to learn that their history is extensive.  Like before the U.S. was even a country.  One website I consulted noted that America’s first folk song, written in 1643, was a satire about eating (and drinking, in the form of pumpkin ales) nothing but pumpkins and parsnips.  The lyrics I viewed weren’t that funny to me, but humor can be culturally and time period bound, and this song is over 350 years old, so I’ll give it a break, and not mock it.  During this period, evidently malt was hard to come by, so early European colonists looking to brew beer turned to a local plant that was a good source of fermentable sugars, the humble pumpkin.  As a result, pumpkin ale was quite popular, especially in the 1700’s, along with regular porters and ales.  A recipe for making it survives from 1771, even.  However, this popularity took a major hit in the early 1800’s.  Pumpkin ale was seen as passé, and apparently malt sources weren’t such a problem to easily locate anymore.  Regular grain ales, porters, and then lagers especially came to dominate the U.S. beer scene in the mid to late 1800’s, and up until the present day.
     However, in the early days of the craft, microbrewing movement, in the late 1980’s, a brewer decided to experiment, and reintroduce the pumpkin beer.  This brewer, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery (out of California) even used one of founding father George Washington’s personal recipes for their prototype (although the commercial version was apparently different, and used pumpkin pie spices in place of actual pumpkin to make it).  Over the next couple of decades pumpkin beers steadily grew in popularity, and now hundreds of U.S. breweries offer them.
     And this in itself produced surprising information.  I didn’t realize how polarizing an issue pumpkin beer is.  People seem to mostly love it or hate.  I read a particularly vicious quote about the style from a Washington City Times beer writer, Orr Stuhl:  “Even picking a favorite is like picking a favorite airborne disease.”  Looking through some comments in the websites and blogs I looked at, I saw some similar opinions—how much they hated pumpkin beers, and in some cases, how they hated that they were sold, and how those that enjoy them are not “real” beer drinkers, etc.  These were balanced by comments defending pumpkin beers, many of whom extolled (or at least appreciated) the style.
     I myself, not shockingly, love to try new types of beer (and meat, organs, cheeses, vegetables, fruit—you get the idea), and I’m not adverse to all the fruit-flavored beer types, either, like lambics, framboises, some shandies, winter seasonals—some are quite tasty.  Although I have to say that even the good ones, like decent ciders, are usually so sweet that I can only have one or two in a sitting, and can’t drink them all night.  But as a switch up, I can appreciate them from time to time.  Over the years I’ve tried the occasional pumpkin beer, and recall liking some, so I went into this project with enthusiasm.  But enough history and chatter, let’s get to the rankings.  I deliberately chose a mix of larger, macrobrewery offering, and smaller, local microbrews.  And these are listed, worst to best, using the school A(excellent) through F (failure) rankings.

Southampton Pumpkin Ale (New York State): D.  Very nasty, and astringent.  Not good at all.

Starr Hill Boxcar Pumpkin Porter (Virginia): D.  I like that they tried a different beer style—most pumpkin beers are ales or lagers—but the result was tremendously disappointing.  It was tasteless, like water.  Akin to a light beer—that’s how watery it was.

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Colorado): D.  Thin, tasteless, and not worth it.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery American Original Pumpkin Ale (California): D+. You may recall from above, this was the one that reintroduced the style back in the late 1980’s.  So I expected it to be exceptional, since so many copied it, or at least the idea.  But no, for me.  I found it only slightly pumpkin-y, and a lot astringent.  

Lakefront Pumpkin Lager (Wisconsin): C-.  Disappointing.  Only a hint of pumpkin flavor.  Watery and weak.

Post Road Pumpkin Ale (Brooklyn Brewery, NY):  C.  Okay, not great.  Slightly bitter in an unpleasant way.

Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat (Missouri):  C.  Mediocre.  Had slight cinnamon taste.

Shipyard Brewing Pumpkinhead (Maine):  C.  Drinkable.  Not very pumpkin-y.  Rather bland and inoffensive.

Ithaca Country Pumpkin (NY):  C+.  Okay, weakish.  Not great.

Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Massachussetts):  C+.  Slightly better than average, but still not very special.

The Traveler Beer Company Jack-o Shandy (Vermont):  C+.  Really different—it’s a shandy (lemon peel) mixed with pumpkin.  Weird.  Flavor pairing is a little off-putting and strange, but somehow is not terrible, and is oddly drinkable.

Southern Tier Imperial Pumking (NY):  C+.  Weird.  Sweetish at first, then unpleasant aftertaste.  Does hide extremely high alcohol content (8.6%) well, though.

Uinta Punk’n Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Utah):  B-.  Nice odor.  Okay, a tad blandish.  Still a marked improvement over most of the others.

Harpoon Pumpkin UFO Unfiltered Ale (New England): B-.  A bit weak, but better than average.  Slightly more pumpkin-y.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (New Hampshire): B+.  Nice odor, very good.  Spicey.  Tastes normal at first, than pumpkin flavor really kicks in nicely.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Pennsylvania): A-.  Very good.  Blend of spices was well done.

    In conclusion, looking at my rankings, I’m struck that I’m apparently an exception to the “love it or hate it” dichotomy.  Half (8) I found to be mediocre and average (“C” rating), and I disliked (“D”) 4, and really enjoyed (“B to A”) 4.  And even the 4 lowest ranked ones weren’t terrible, weren’t drain pours or anything.  So it appears, if I generalize, that I kind of like the style, but only slightly.  Also, I should note that I wasn’t able to get my hands on two of the acknowledged superior pumpkin beers—Dogfish Head’s Punkin and Southern Tier’s Pumking (Note: found the Pumking three days later, tried, and ranked above).  If I can locate them I’ll add them to the list.

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