Friday, October 30, 2015

The Great Pumpkin (Beer)

I’m a big fan of pumpkin pie.  I’m also a fan of craft beers.  What could be better than to blend the two into one, resulting in pumpkin beer?  To be honest, I still prefer pumpkin pie to pumpkin beer.  Even the best pumpkin beer falls short of a nice slab of pumpkin pie with some whipped cream on top.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made it a point to try every pumpkin beer I can find.  I want to know which pumpkin beer gets me as close to that imaginary blend of good craft beer and pumpkin pie.  Below, I’m ranking 32 contenders for the crown of “best pumpkin beer” in order from best to worst.  I consider numbers 1-5 a tie for first place.  I'll need to do a "taste-off" to see which one I think is really the "best of the best".

  1. Heavy Seas The Great'er Pumpkin (9/10):  The aroma is strong with pumpkin and spice.  The flavor starts with a nicely balanced mix of pumpkin, spices, malt, and hops.  The barrel aging adds a nice oaky element.  
  2. Southern Tier Pumking (8/10):  This is hard to beat.  You have crust elements in the flavor and aroma.  You can pick out pumpkin and spice in both aroma and flavor.  If it was a touch sweeter it would be fantastic.
  3. Hoppin' Frog Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale (8/10):  Aroma is malty with hints of ginger, cinnamon, and other spices.  Flavor starts with malt, pumpkin, and ginger.  Hops bitterness is detectable but minimal.
  4. Sam Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale (8/10):  The aroma is malt and caramel primarily, with a definite alcohol note.  The flavor is well balanced.  Pumpkin, malt, and other elements are all present and blend well.  One of the better pumpkin beers.
  5. Rivertown Headless Wylie's Spiced Pumpkin Ale (8/10):  The aroma is rich, with cinnamon, pumpkin, and pie crust elements.  The flavor starts sweet and malty, then creamy, with pumpkin, spice, and mild bitterness.  Reminds me of Southern Tier Pumking.
  6. Uinta Punk'n Harvest Ale (8/10):  The aroma is malty and pumpkiny.  The flavor is more beer than pumpkin and spice.  Finish is slightly dry and bitter. Despite this, it's a smooth, creamy, and very drinkable beer.
  7. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8/10):  The aroma is spicy and leans toward cloves.  The flavor is a nice mix of pumpkin and spice with minimal hops presence.
  8. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin (8/10):  Aroma is malty and spicy.  Flavor starts sweet and malty with a creamy element.  After this, clove, cinnamon, and pumpkin come through.
  9. Elysian and 21st Amendment He Said Pumpkin Tripel (7/10):  Aroma combines clove, pumpkin, and malt.  Flavor is an interesting combination of Tripel style spice and sweetness with pumpkin and spice.  Some alcohol warmth.
  10. Sideswipe Pumpkin Butternut Squash (7/10):  Aroma is of squash and spice.  Flavor is similar to the aroma, starting with malt and squash. This gives way to spices.  Finish is mildly bitter, malty, and squashy.
  11. The Brew Kettle Strangeville Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  Aroma is spicy.  Flavor is primarily malty with pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon in the background.  Finish is bitter.
  12. Uinta Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  The aroma is great.  You get vanilla, spice, and pumpkin.  The flavor is leaning toward bitter. The oak element comes through.  The vanilla, pumpkin, and spice are much less pronounced.  Great as an oaked beer, not as great as a pumpkin beer.
  13. Cellar Dweller Pumpken (7/10):  Aroma is full of pumpkin and spice.  Flavor tends toward spice, predominantly cinnamon and nutmeg.  Finish is bitter and lingering.
  14. Rivertown Pumkin's Spiced Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  The aroma is of pumpkin, spice, and maybe ginger.  The flavor starts rich and malty, then gives way to the pumpkin and spice.  Finish is a mix of pumpkin, spice, cinnamon, and ginger.
  15. BJ's Brewhouse Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  The aroma is very strongly pumpkin and only very slightly spicy.  The flavor starts with a kind of sourness, but gives way to creaminess and malt with a spice backdrop.  Easier to drink than some of the others below it on the list.
  16. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (7/10):  The flavor hints at pumpkin and you can detect a bit of spice in it, but it's a very subtle beer overall.  It might be easy to mistake for an Octoberfest or other beer that isn't pumpkin based.
  17. Ithaca Country Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  The aroma is malty and spicy. The flavor seems balanced toward ginger, with pumpkin coming after that, and spices in the background.  Easy to drink.
  18. Elevator Peacelock Pumpkin Stout (7/10):  The aroma is of pumpkin pie and coffee.  Flavor is primarily coffee and stout, with some pumpkin in the finish.  Less hoppy than many Elevator beers.
  19. Southern Tier Warlock Pumpkin Porter (7/10):  The flavor starts bitter and smoky.  This gives way to dark roasted malt, pumpkin, and spice.  The finish is hoppy and bitter.
  20. Anderson Valley Pinchy Jeek Barl (7/10):  Aroma is buttery, oaky, and bourbony.  The flavor is all that, plus a little pumpkin.  It's definitely a sipping beer.  It took me a very long time to finish the bottle.
  21. New Belgium Pumpkick (7/10):  The aroma is definitely pumpkin with cranberry, cinnamon, ad nutmeg behind that.  The flavor is very tart, with cranberries, nutmeg, and lemongrass dominating.  It's not really what I look for in a pumpkin beer but not bad.
  22. Jackie O's Barking Pumpkin Ale (7/10):  Aroma is spicy.  Flavor is balanced but leans toward sweet.  The spices are subtle, but present.  Finish is slightly bitter.
  23. Epic Imperial Pumpkin Porter (7/10):  The aroma is very malty, covering up any pumpkin or spice.  Flavor is malty and bitter.  Pumpkin and spice take a back seat to porter here.
  24. New Holland Ichabod Pumpkin Ale (6/10):  The aroma is good.  The label is great.  The flavor tends toward malt and nutmeg, and finishes bitter.  I like it, but don't love it.
  25. Wolaver Organic Pumpkin Ale (6/10):  There is a good spice level and the pumpkin is readily discernable.  Finish is mildly bitter and dry.
  26. Anderson Valley Fall Hornin' (6/10):  The aroma is cinnamon and pumpkin.  The flavor starts malty with some bitterness and pumpkin.  The finish is bitter and lingering.
  27. Dayton Beer Company Pumpkin Party Ale (6/10):  The aroma reminds me of a lightly spiced pumpkin pie.  The flavor opens on the hoppy side, but this gives way to cinnamon and spice.  The hops at the start and end detract from the overall experience for me.
  28. Saranac Pumpkin Ale (6/10):  Aroma of sour pumpkin and grain.  Flavor is mostly barley with a little pumpkin funk and ginger, with a slight hint of spice.  The malt overwhelms most of the other flavors.
  29. Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale (5/10):  This has a good pumpkin and spice aroma.  The flavor starts out good but there's a kind of sour pumpkin funk to it that ruins it for me.
  30. O'Fallon Pumpkin Ale (4/10):  The aroma's a mix of vanilla, pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Flavor is not unpleasant but borders on it.  There's a kind of creamy sour pumpkin funk followed by malt and toasted grain.  Maybe I had a bad bottle, but I don't like it.
  31. Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale (4/10):  The aroma is great.  There's a lot of spice and pumpkin.  The flavor, unfortunately, is like a lot of other Brooklyn beers.  It's "all about the hops" and less about anything else.  If it wasn't for the aroma, it would be easy to mistake this for a non-pumpkin beer.
  32. Smuttynose Pumpkin (3/10):  Hops is the dominant flavor here.  Pumpkin and spice take a back seat, or maybe they're in a different vehicle altogether.  This one is heavily balanced in flavor and aroma toward hops.  Not what I look for in a pumpkin beer.

1Southern-Tier-Pumkin-BottleSouthern Tier PumkingAroma:  Wow!  I want to take out a fork and start eating this.  You get crust, creamy pumpkin, and spice here in spades.  Absolutely delicious.

Taste:  Not as good as the aroma, but still quite good.  Pumpkin and spice up front where they should be, with beer and hops in the back seat.

Overall Experience:  Pretty darned close to the mental image of a slab of pumpkin pie and a nice cold beer.
2Sam-Adams-Fat-JackSam Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin AleAroma:  Malty and caramel, with a strong alcohol note to it.

Taste:  Well balanced.  Pumpkin, malt, and other flavor elements are all present and none really overwhelms the rest.  The pumpkin lends a creamy thickness to the beer that works well.  Finish is a little dry but nice.

Overall Experience:  It’s not the pumpkin pie experience I’d like it to be, but it’s a good mix of beer and pumpkin pie elements.  For an “almost macro brew” it’s pretty darned impressive.
3BJs-Pumpkin-AleBJ’s Brewhouse Pumpkin AleAroma:  Definite pumpkin here.  A little bit of spice.

Taste:  Starts with a bit of molasses-like sourness, followed by some pumpkin creaminess and malt.  Spices hang out in another room but are present.

Overall Experience:  Not quite that pumpkin pie experience, but there are elements of it here.  Pumpkin takes center stage, with beer right behind it.
4Uinta-Punk-n-Harvest-Pumpkin-AleUinta Punk’n Harvest Pumpkin AleAroma:  Malty with a strong hint of pumpkin, but no spice that I can detect.

Taste:  More like a good craft beer than a slice of pie.  I get some ginger and pumpkin, but that’s about it.  Finish is dry and bitter.

Overall Experience:  Very little of the holiday experience here.  Still, it’s a good beer and pleasant to drink.
5Jackie-O-PumpkinJackie O’s Barking Pumpkin AleAroma:  Spice takes the front seat, with pumpkin behind it.

Taste:  The brewers use a lot of malt in this, so it tends toward the sweeter side, which I like.  Overall, it’s well-balanced.  The spices are too subtle in the flavor, and the finish is slightly bitter.

Overall Experience:  Based on the aroma, I want to like this more than I do.  Still, it’s a solid pumpkin beer and certainly one of the better ones in this lineup.  This is the highest ranking Ohio pumpkin beer in the list.
6Ithaca-Country-Pumpkin-AleIthaca Country Pumpkin Ale
Aroma:  Spicy and malty with a ginger note.  Not a pumpkin pie, but evocative of the season.Taste:  Ginger seems to be a dominant part of the flavor, with pumpkin “funkiness” behind it.  A kind of molasses or brown sugar sourness goes with it.

Overall Experience:  It’s a pleasant beer but not really what I look for in a pumpkin beer.  I’d like to see something a bit more creamy, sweet, and spicy.
7SouthernTierWarlockSouthern Tier WarlockAroma:  It’s kind of a cross between pumpkin pie, chocolate, and dark malt.

Taste:  Begins bitter and smoky.  This gives way to pumpkin, malt, and spice.  The finish is definitely hoppy and bitter, reminding you that this is definitely a beer.

Overall Experience:  While not entirely unpleasant, it’s not quite what I look for in a pumpkin beer.
8Dayton-Pumpkin-Party-AleDayton Beer Company Pumpkin Party AleAroma:  Reminds me of a lightly spiced pumpkin pie.

Taste:  Opens on the hoppy side, which reminds me that it’s a beer.  This gives way to cinnamon and allspice.  The aftertaste is bitter.

Overall Experience:  This has the aroma I’m looking for, but doesn’t make it on the flavor side.
9Epic-Pumpkin-PorterEpic Imperial Pumpkin Porter
Aroma:  It’s malty, and the malt nearly covers up the pumpkin and spices.Taste:  The flavor is primarily malty, with a bitterness that seems to be from the grain rather than the malt.  Pumpkin and spice are way in the background.

Overall Experience:  Not a bad beer, but not what I’m thinking of for this situation.
10Dogfish-Head-PunkinDogfish Head Punkin AleAroma:  Malty with maybe a hint of hops.  No hint that pumpkin or spice is in it.

Taste:  Matches up with the aroma.  It’s a good enough beer, but could easily be mistaken for an Oktoberfest or harvest ale rather than a pumpkin beer.

Overall Experience:  It’s OK but not what I’m looking for.
11Saranac-Pumpkin-AleSaranac Pumpkin AleAroma:  Sour pumpkin and toasted grain dominate.

Taste:  Starts with smoked barley, followed by pumpkin funk and barely-detectable spice.  The roasted malts aren’t bad but not what I expect from pumpkin beer.

Overall Experience:  A decent beer, just not a good “pumpkin beer”.
12New-Holland-IchabodNew Holland Ichabod Pumpkin AleAroma:  Pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg dominate, as I’d expect.

Taste:  Starts with malt and nutmeg, then gives way to pumpkin creaminess.  Ends mildly bitter.  Hops bitterness kills the overall effect.

Overall Experience:  The coolest label of all the pumpkin beers.  Not the best tasting by far.
13Shipyard-PumpkinheadShipyard Pumpkin AleAroma:  Pumpkin, ginger, and cinnamon dominate the aroma.

Taste:  Starts with ginger, cinnamon, and pumpkin.  I get some nutmeg along with it.  The finish is bitter and sour, which I don’t care for.

Overall Experience:  It’s a lot of what I’m looking for, but unfortunately also a lot of what I don’t want in a beer.
14o-fallon-pumpkin-beerO’Fallon Pumpkin BeerAroma:  This is a mix of raw pumpkin and vanilla, with some cinnamon and nutmeg.  Not a bad start.

Taste:  Funky and sour at the start, ending with a malty, toasted grain flavor.

Overall Experience:  Maybe it was a bad bottle, but it struck me as just unpleasant and nothing like a pumpkin pie experience.  It was really sour overall.
15Brooklyn-Post-Road-PumpkinBrooklyn Post Road Pumpkin AleAroma:  Very nice with lots of pumpkin and spice in it.

Taste:  Hops, hops, and more hops.  If there’s pumpkin and spice in here, I can’t find it for the hops.

Overall Experience:  Not what I want from a beer, pumpkin or otherwise.
16Smuttynose-Pumpkin-AleSmuttynose Pumpkin AleAroma:  Hops, with maybe some pumpkin and spice in the background.

Taste:  Not as bitter as some pale ales, but much more than I’m looking for in a pumpkin ale.  The hops bitterness overwhelms the pumpkin and spice that might exist somewhere in this beer.

Overall Experience:  Not what I want from a beer, period.

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