Among some in the craft brew-loving set, it is de rigeur to hate on pumpkin beers and decry their increasingly premature appearance on store shelves (in some cases, as early as July). But even pumpkin beer detractors can’t deny they are big business (even if there is some indication of pumpkin beer fatigue among consumers). They also can’t deny that pumpkin ales are a part of American culture. Centuries ago, pumpkins were just one of a number of fermentable, indigenous ingredients beer-brewing colonists used in place of malt.
Today, pumpkins are used in beer making for flavor as opposed to sugar, which is probably a good thing. And whether you love them or hate them, I’m sure you can agree that some examples within the category are better than others.
With that in mind, we here at KegWorks traipsed to our local beer store to stock up on as many varieties we could get our hands on, and then we ranked them in hopes of finding our favorites. Below are the totally subjective conclusions of our panel of tasters.
1. The Great Pumpkin
Elysian Brewing Company
Elysian adds roasted pumpkin seeds in the mash, and extra pumpkin in the mash, kettle and fermenter to brew this well-balanced Imperial Pumpkin Ale.
Tasters called it reminiscent of Pumking and the best example of a pie-style pumpkin beer we sampled. Aroma-wise, it is akin to something your grandmother might bake on Thanksgiving, with notes of cinnamon and a strong wallop of nutmeg. On the nose, the malt is sugary, not toasted or caramelized. Each sip delivers perceptible pumpkin flavor and big sweetness followed immediately by intense spices, strong bitterness, and smooth alcohol warmth.
2. Pumpkin Down
To get in on the fall action, Ballast Point uses its lightly hopped, malty Piper Down Scottish Ale as the backdrop to what it describes as “a boatload of roasted pumpkin” and subtle spice.
We liked the ruby appearance and rich malt and medium spice aromas. One taster described the flavor as malty and slightly evocative of potpourri, but not offensively so. Another admired the affinity of Scotch Ale for roasted gourd meat, calling it “clearly the best combo” in the wide-world of pumpkin beers.
3. Warlock Imperial Pumpkin Stout
Southern Tier Brewing Company
Warlock is part of Southern Tier’s Blackwater Series of flavored Imperial Stouts, and it is marketed as a counterpoint to Pumking.
Hints of its intensity might be inferred from its rich black color and deep bouquet of gingerbread and graham. One taster found it “super tasty” but “hugely intense,” with lots of big sweetness, heavy baking spice, and major alcohol warmth. And yet, despite its colossal flavors, another described it as “surprisingly easy to drink.”
4. Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Weyerbacher is pretty proud of this one, calling it “heartier, spicier, and more ‘caramelly’ and ‘pumpkiny’” than the competition.
And for good reason. We thought it the most balanced of the pumpkin beers we sampled and appreciated that it hit all the right pie notes without being cloying, aggressive, or offensive. Aromas of brown sugar, spices, toast, pumpkin flesh, cinnamon, and caramel are all present, while light malt, a slight tartness, and notes of clove come through flavor-wise. It some ways, it is reminiscent of a Belgian Dubbel—that is, nicely spicy but with a dryness that left the beer surprisingly not cloying. Members of our panel called it “very good” and “nicely executed.”
New Belgium brews this contender with pumpkin juice, baking spices, lemongrass and a “kick” of cranberry juice to arrive at a beer it describes as featuring “pumpkin pie sweetness with a very light sourness that finishes with an ever-so-slight bitterness.”
Our tasters were torn on the cranberry element, with one calling the “prickly” tartness “surprisingly good” and another lamenting it as “too much.” Everyone seemed to agree that the cinnamon component is overly aggressive and even mildly artificial tasting—in a not-great, Fireball sort of way. Even so, most of us felt it was fairly to wholly drinkable. Nice hops on the finish really helped this beer.
6. Punkin Ale (tie)
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Dogfish first introduced Punkin Ale in 1994 at Punkin Chunkin—an annual pumpkin hurling competition in Delaware. It has been in seasonal rotation ever since.
Overall, it was pretty nice, with toasty, toffee aromas and moderate baking spice. Malt was appreciable and pleasant, with enough bitterness. But it was too sweet for some. A drier finish may have bumped it a little higher in the ranks.
7. Post Road Pumpkin Ale (tie)
Brooklyn Brewery gets old-timey with Post Road—an ale brewed to evoke the flavors of pumpkin beers American colonists might have swilled. Brooklyn makes Post Road with nutmeg and heirloom variety Dickinson pumpkins, known for their sweet, creamy flesh.
Our tasters perceived actual pumpkin in the aroma, but not so much on the palate. Instead, we picked up moderate toasty malt, moderately strong bitterness, grassy and vegetal flavors, and mild spicing. Overall, we considered it refreshing but a little lacking in character (with one particular snob among us calling it “almost macro like”). Another complained of too much diacetyl.
8. Fall Hornin’
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
This balanced, fairly drinkable beer threw us for a loop. It boasted classic fall aromas and flavors like brown sugar, caramel, honey, and pie spice. But it was also quite bitter—probably the most bitter of the bunch. And there was something else to it, something we couldn’t quite put our finger on. One called it umami—that elusive, savory fifth taste present in mushrooms, tomatoes, meat, and Doritos. Another taster described it as ennui. We’re pretty sure he was joking.
9. Fat Jack
Sam Adams says it puts 28 pounds of pumpkin in each barrel of Fat Jack “for a full bodied sweetness and deep russet color.”
We’re not sure how that gourd-to-barrel ratio compares to other pumpkin beers. What we do know is that Fat Jack has a sweet, almost citrusy aroma, with notes of caramel, cardamom, cinnamon, light florals, and tart berries. There is almost no hop on the nose and just a subtle malty toast. The flavor is all sweet, boozy caramel and honey with medium bitterness. Overall, it’s not bad, but the baking spices build with each sip to an intensity that didn’t sit well with all tasters. If you're really into pumpkin spice though, you’ll probably be into this.
10. Pinchy Jeek Barl (tie)
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Anderson Valley says its process of aging this pumpkin ale for six months in Wild Turkey® barrels “imparts notes of coconut, vanilla, and oak to compliment the tang of the spices and a hint of hops.”
We say this beer is all booze and barrel, and not much else. Smoke and caramel aromas give way to an intense whiskey flavor, high alcohol heat, and something else that defied description. It’s a solid beer that will warm you up, but it was not necessarily our cup of tea (or stein of beer, if you will). We could, however, see how some people might really enjoy it.
11. 20 Pounds of Pumpkin (tie)
This second Sam Adams beer on our list uses 20 pounds per barrel to Fat Jack’s 28, which the brewers combine with smoked malt to give it a roasted, nutty character. Classic pumpkin pie spices like clove, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg round out the ingredients list.
One taster thought this one smelled candle-like. Others perceived a syrupy, toasty malt aroma, subtle spice, brown sugar, and a little molasses. Its appetizing, deep mahogany color gave way to a beer heavier on the allspice and clove than other varieties, with medium-low levels of nutmeg, biscuit notes, and a floral aftertaste. Overall, we found the malt/spice combination a bit heavy handed, but not altogether offensive.
12. The Devil’s Dark Side Pumpkin Stout
Lavery Brewing Company
Lavery blends its dry, chocolate malt-inflected 1847 Rye Stout with its Devil’s Pumpkin Ale to make The Devil’s Dark Side.
Our tasters picked up on light roast, clove, allspice, strong nutmeg, deep chocolate, and English malt aromas. Black licorice and chocolate flavors were present, but most of us couldn’t get past the cloying sweetness and acrid bitter notes. It was overwhelming in a way that made it difficult to drink.
We’d definitely drink The Great Pumpkin, Pumpkin Down, Warlock, and Wayerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Stout again. And while we wouldn’t go out of our way for Fall Hornin’, Pumpkick, Punkin Ale, or Post Road, we also probably wouldn’t turn down a bottle if someone was offering.