I love the fall. Nature puts on its slow color show, the weather warms your cheeks by day and cools your slumber at night, and the land is perfumed with an earthy musk that stills the senses. Fall also brings delicious pumpkin ales, a sensory experience that says my favorite time of year is here.
There are two approaches to brewing a pumpkin beer: create a pumpkin-pie-in-a-glass, or create a beer that stands on its own, but uses some traditional flavors and spices that one finds in a pumpkin pie. Of the two, I gravitate toward the pie-in-a-glass approach, but a few of this year’s offerings that take the road less traveled are exceptional as well.
Here is a sampling of eight pumpkin ales that run the gamut.
Southern Tier Pumking (8.6% ABV)
All hail the king! This beer is what happens when you blend a pumpkin pie with a punk rock song. It’s a gonzo blast of pumpkin-pie-in-a–glass, with classic pumpkin spices, a huge gush of sweet vanilla and a bit of booziness on the back end. There’s a little hit of veggie funk in the middle as well, which adds a layer of earthiness and complexity that’s pretty neat. I love big beers, and this is the first beer I think about when the weather turns cooler and the sweaters come out. It’s the adult version of getting new shoes and school supplies.
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (8% ABV)
If Pumking is a punk song, then Schlafly Pumpkin Ale is what happened when Sting quit The Police and went adult contemporary. This beer has all the sweet hallmarks I look for in a pumpkin beer — the vanilla, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the clove — but there’s a grown up vibe about it, a refinement that pulls everything in a little tighter, a little better integrated with one another. I’m a big fan of Schlafly’s signature taste, and this beer is currently playing in heavy rotation in my fridge.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (7% ABV)
This is the first beer Dogfish Head ever offered, and it won Sam Calagione a first-place ribbon at Sussex County Delaware’s celebrated Punkin Chunkin festival. Punkin takes a very balanced approach, with lovely notes of pumpkin spice, a touch of sweetness and a rich, roasted middle to the flavor that reminds me of toasted pumpkin seeds. If you could drink a painting of fall foliage, this is what it would taste like.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8% ABV)
This beer starts out with great promise, but then leaves me wanting. It’s big and dry, with lots of pumpkin spices up front and then…it’s over. Where’s the rich vanilla finish to balance out the spice? Like Charlie Brown with the Great Pumpkin, you can wait all night for the sweetness to show up and get nothing for your efforts. That said, pair this beer with a slice of cream cheese glazed carrot cake and your head will explode in pleasure.
Hoppin’ Frog Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale (8.4% ABV)
This beer starts off with a traditional pumpkin pie flavors, then takes a right turn and finishes with a dry bitterness, reminiscent of traditional English ale. While my wife adores the restraint and craftsmanship shown in the design of this brew, I was disappointed when the come-on of the spicy flavors wasn’t followed by a little more sweetness. It’s like being offered a bite of delicious pumpkin pie, only to have it pulled away when you reach out with your fork.
Cisco Brewers Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale (6% ABV)
This brew wins originality points both for its name and its unique approach. Pumple Drumkin (it’s even fun to type!) has a classic beer character, with a light malt body followed by a bright pop of hops, and interlaces it with a light touch of the pumpkin and spice flavors that dominate some of the other brews reviewed here. It’s an agreeable combination that’s light, crisp and seasonal in a way that doesn’t bog down your palate, but still retains the earthiness.
Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale (6.1% ABV)
This ale also goes its own way when it comes to using pumpkins to add character to a beer. Night Owl has a surprising amount of candied sweetness early in the flavor, hinting at what a Pumpkin Jolly Rancher might taste like. This sweetness gives way to light touches of pumpkin spice and an aftertaste like you just had a bite of pumpkin pie. It all works together brilliantly, creating a unique and delicious brew.
Samuel Adams Fat Jack (8.5% ABV)
The first time I smelled Samuel Adams Fat Jack, I was reminded of a wet dog. Not in a bad way – I like dogs – but it is very earthy on the nose. A sip reveals a dank maltiness, followed by a dry and nicely bittered finish. I’m not sure that I’d have known this was a pumpkin brew if there wasn’t the picture of one on the label. That’s not to say this isn’t a good beer – it’s a rich autumnal treat with hints of cocoa and raisins - but when I think “pumpkin beer,” this is a far cry from what springs to mind.
These are just some of the pumpkin beers that are available this time of year. With more and more brewers adding pumpkins to their patch, it’s a great time to be a pumpkin lover, as you have an almost overwhelming set of options. Be sure to drink pumpkin beers at just above room temperature. Cold is the enemy of sweetness in a beer, and the subtle flavors of vanilla and spice blossom as beers like these warm.
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