(Regular readers of this blog might be saying, “Wait a second, this post sounds awfully familiar.” And they’d be right, this is a reprint from a year ago. However, I have updated it a little bit, as I was able to try some more pumpkin beer offerings. Essentially, I needed another Halloween-related post for the Coffin Hop, and couldn’t think of anything else in time! New updates are marked with an asterisk (*) in front of them.)
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 the
Pacific Northwest) 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, krieks, 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 (
D. Very nasty, and astringent. Not good at all. New York State
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.
*Long Trail Unfiltered Pumpkin Ale (
Bad. Metallic-tasting. Not pumpkin-y at all. What happened? Long Trail is usually a quality brewery—a
Buffalo Bill’s Brewery American Original Pumpkin Ale (
Pacific Northwest): 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 (
Brewery, NY): C. Okay, not great. Slightly bitter in an unpleasant way.
Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat (
C. Mediocre. Had slight cinnamon taste.
Shipyard Brewing Pumpkinhead (
C. Drinkable. Not very pumpkin-y. Rather bland and inoffensive.
*Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale (
Just average. Kind of
bland-ish. Not bad, just not a very
*Great South Bay Splashing Pumpkin Ale (
C+. Pumpkin-y at first, but ends a
little weakly. Long Island, NY
Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Massachussetts): C+. Slightly better than average, but still not very special.
The Traveler Beer Company Jack-o Shandy (
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.
Uinta Punk’n Harvest Pumpkin Ale (
B-. Nice odor. Okay, a tad blandish. Still a marked improvement over most of the
Harpoon Pumpkin UFO Unfiltered Ale (
England): B-. A bit weak,
but better than average. Slightly more
*Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin (
B. This was a surprise, as I usually do
not like stouts at all. Tastes very
heavy and strong (it’s 10.5% alcohol!).
Slightly spicy. Weird. Has sweetish, vanilla-y burn at end. Really grew on me.
* Southern Tier Pumking (NY): B. Sweet, vanilla-y. Good. Hides alcohol content (8.6%) well. To be fair, it didn’t taste very pumpkin-y, but it was tasty all the same.
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. Almost half (7, now 9) I found to be mediocre and average (“C” rating), and I disliked (“D”) 4 (now 5), and really enjoyed (“B to A”) 4 (now 6). And even the 4 (now 5) 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 (obviously, I did find this one—it’s ranked above). If I can locate them I’ll add them to the list.
* Furthermore, I’ve been a little puzzled, and amused, by the recent furor over “pumpkin spice.” It appears that some people are really upset over this flavor being added to coffee/lattes, doughnuts, cakes, candy, candles, etc. I get that many people don’t like pumpkin spice flavoring, or are a little annoyed that it’s being offered in tons of products, and you see the words everywhere, but it still seems like an overreaction. It seems pretty easy to just not order the offending flavor, and just ignore the fad for a few weeks.