Every year around the middle of August, beer forums light up with seasonal beer discussion and pumpkin beers are always at the forefront of the conversation. Whether you love or hate pumpkin beers, or debate whether some examples of the style should be called “pumpkin” beers at all, there’s no denying the popularity and appeal of these unique beverages. I decided to gather a bunch of pumpkin beers and other seasonal fall brews that we get in North Carolina and bounce them off each other to revel in the spicy, malty goodness that is so bountiful this time of year.
The pumpkin beer debate often comes down to the rather contentious point of ingredients. Most “pumpkin” beers do contain pumpkin in some form, but they don’t taste as much like pumpkin as they do cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, sugar, and other ingredients that people typically associate with the most familiar pumpkin dish around, pumpkin pie. Therefore, many examples come across as herb or spiced beers rather than true vegetable beers.
A couple of the finest fall beers around hail from North Carolina, and on the spiced side nothing beats Big Boss Harvest Time and Carolina Beer Company’s Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale. The Cottonwood offering (bottled in Pennsylvania) has a boozy quality and ginger bite that makes it especially bold, along with a lingering caramel quality. It’s not overly spiced or sweet, and the pumpkin balances everything to make for an interesting, fruity flavor that belies the beer’s seasonal status. Harvest Time is a cloudier, sweeter ale that piles loads of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and caramel on top of a malty backbone rich with pumpkin. It’s more sophisticated, revealing notes of vanilla, clove, and even chocolate. It comes much closer to the taste of pumpkin pie and is more drinkable than the somewhat bitter Cottonwood.
Maine’s Shipyard Brewing doesn’t send many beers down south, but this time of year beer lovers start seeing the 12 oz. Pumpkinhead Ale and the more desirable bombers of Smashed Pumpkin on shelves. Pumpkinhead has a much-deserved reputation as one of the weakest pumpkin beers around. With a taste, mouthfeel, and smell more akin to a cider or wine, along with a spice note that is entirely out of place, Pumpkinhead is the bottom rung of the style. Smashed Pumpkin, on the other hand, masks 9 percent alcohol with a barrage of malt and more pumpkin presence than spice, though there is a subtle tinge of nutmeg and a pleasantly lingering sweetness. It’s a fine beer that isn’t too rife with spices and would double nicely as a winter warmer. Another northeastern brewery, Smuttynose, also offers toned-down spices and plenty of bitter pumpkin in their Pumpkin Ale. This tricky style of alcoholic treat is executed better by Weyerbacher, whose Imperial Pumpkin Ale brings more alcohol and spice into the mix, which helps balance the strong pumpkin presence.
Speaking of winter and cider, one of the more interesting offerings this year is Woodchuck Cider’s Private Reserves Pumpkin. The company’s always sweet and satisfying cider is finished with a sour pumpkin flourish that stands in firm contrast to the sweet apple flavor. It’s a fun diversion but in the end nothing will replace their original cider. Another sweet, simple example of the style is Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, one of the country’s oldest beers. The brew resides on the watery side, though, and isn’t one I’d recommend. New Holland Brewing Company’s Ichabod sports one of the coolest names in the business, but is a fairly standard pumpkin ale. They all have their features, though, and Ichabod’s trademark is a serious ginger kick that is masked by a huge malt profile and sweet smells. Otter Creek/Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale sports a more balanced combination of similar ingredients, though the clove is definitely forward and slight citrus notes can be tasted. Dogfish Head, without a doubt one of the most likely to succeed when it comes to stuff like this, doesn’t disappoint with their Punkin Ale. This brown ale rings rich and sweet through your taste buds thanks to the inclusion of brown sugar and a well-blended selection of spices. Terrapin Beer Company sets their Pumpkinfest apart from the crowd by blending styles. The beer is a combination of a Marzen and a Pumpkin Ale, and the malty Marzen presence makes for a bready, savory spice delivery system.
If you’ve tried a lot of these beers and you’re ready for something completely different, there are two standout pumpkin beers to seek. Southern Tier’s Pumking is one of the more notorious and sought-after beers of the style, and with good reason. There’s simply no other beer like it. Forgoing the usual blend of pumpkin pie spices, Southern Tier went in a different direction and brought the crust into play. The aroma of Pumking is almost entirely of graham cracker crust, which makes for a revelatory moment upon first sniff. The taste is similar, but subtle notes of vanilla and a strong backbone of pumpkin come through as well. Similarly, Heavy Seas Greater Pumpkin brings an unexpected variable into the mix – it’s aged in bourbon barrels. The bourbon aging masks the aroma a bit, but that’s a small trade off for the delightful way that the bourbon enhances this beer. The spices, which come across first in the flavor and are right in line with a typical pumpkin ale, are cut by an aggressive bourbon flourish in the middle. The warming, tingling effect of the bourbon, paired with the festive spices, makes for a singular fall beverage experience.
Next year, I’ll break down a whole new cache of pumpkin beers. But as for this group, here is how I would rate them against each other.
1. Big Boss Harvest Time
2. Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale
3. Southern Tier Pumking
4. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
5. Terrapin Pumpkinfest
6. Heavy Seas The Greater Pumpkin
7. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
8. Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale
9. New Holland Ichabod
10. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
11. Cottonwood Pumpkin Spiced Ale
12. Woodchuck Ciders Private Reserves Pumpkin
13. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale
14. Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale