Pumpkin ales are as highly anticipated as any seasonal beer, neck-and-neck with Christmas ales.
But it’s a style fraught with problems. Yes, fraught. First, “pumpkin beers” range from spice-heavy to syrupy-sweet to super-pumpkin to just-a-little-of-each. Variety would be great, if not for the second problem: It’s a seasonal style, so you can only try a few a year. And third: It’s almost always packaged in six-packs. Add all that up and you could wind up with disappointment: You buy a six-pack of a pumpkin beer you’ve never tried, only to find it’s not your style at all. You either dump five-and-a-half craft beers, a clearly immoral and heinous act, or you force them down, losing valuable pumpkin beer time and money.
Well, we’re here for you. We built our own six-pack to preview six very different pumpkin brews in a semi-blind taste test.
Tommyknocker Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest Ale: Our first is a pleasant introduction on the sweeter side. Molasses dominated for me.
“If this one were a pumpkin,” Joel says, “it would be one of those little jobbers you put in a basket on the table as opposed to a real one you might want to carve.”
It’s true, more or less. Pumpkin flavor is present, but takes a back seat.
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager: This Milwaukee brewery brags its pumpkin lager is the only pumpkin lager available in the world. It starts with a far stronger aroma than the Tommyknocker. Taste-wise, well, it draws some strange comparisons. Joel insists it’s a “pumpkin cola,” compares it to novelty wax lips and says it tastes exactly like carbonated drinks his 14-year-old son prefers. Elizabeth asks if I’m “sneaking in a non-alcoholic beer.” David’s more positive: “I like it. I feel like the pumpkin is a much smoother finish in this one.”
Saranac Pumpkin Ale: Saranac has been around for 125 years. I bet the Utica, N.Y. brewery is doing all right for itself, and it doesn’t exactly need us. Which is why I feel OK saying that this beer was skunky. “It’s like eating pumpkin pie in a beauty parlor,” Joel says. It spurs Elizabeth to lament, “Every pumpkin beer I’ve had has been disappointing. I really want it to be like my two favorite things in the world, pumpkin pie and stout beer, and it never is.”
Ace Pumpkin Cider: She’ll find no help here. Ace hits the cider notes with gusto: sweet, tart, sharp. It’s not terribly different from the flagship apple cider, as the pumpkin flavor is present but is more or less dominated by straight tartness. “That is the best pumpkin wine I’ve had this year,” Joel says. Elizabeth makes a series of disapproving noises, and David later asks for more.
Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale: Like Saranac, Maine brewery Shipyard seems to reach Colorado only around pumpkin season — or at least that’s when it’s most visible. Pumpkinhead is a classic, highlighting cinnamon and honey over the fruit itself, which makes me think of Mexican sopapillas. After the cider, Elizabeth says, it’s “next to no pumpkin,” and she’s not high on the spice, either: “You can kinda smell the spice but I taste it and it’s flatlined. Code Blue for the nutmeg.”
Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale: “And the winner is,” says Joel after one sip. A fan of porters and black IPAs, he’s fond of the heavier-bodied Sam Adams, which in color and flavor is decidedly darker, thicker and fuller than the others. Sam’s got a lot going on: This beer is as spiced as any in the group, with a solid dose of pumpkin and, the big surprise, a smoky finish.
There are dozens of pumpkin brews we didn’t get to try. But — obviously — we encourage others to shop around and find that beer that, as Joel says, you could make a jack-o’-lantern out of.