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Pumpkin beers deliver fall flavors in a bottle

It's that time again! Pumpkin beers are here in full force, and while I wasn't surprised to find more of them on the shelves this year, the range of styles and approaches were wider than expected, providing for a very interesting tasting session. Whereas pumpkin beers of the past generally went for the "liquid pie" flavor, many breweries now are focusing more on hefty additions of fresh and roasted pumpkin into their mash, creating beers that are more complex and flavorful.

For example, Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale had a light spice profile, with a pleasant gourd flavor. It was not overly complex, but it was balanced and highly drinkable. I was reminded of the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, which also emphasized real pumpkin flavor over spice. This one was surprisingly hoppy and quite complex. Blue Point's Pumpkin Ale was lighter on both ends, with pumpkin and spice evenly balanced but mostly staying in the background. I would call it a session beer, if it weren't for the faint alcohol flavor that revealed its true strength, at 6 percent alcohol by volume.

Some breweries took the middle ground, laying down the spice but still keeping things low-key. My favorite example was the Cisco Pumple Drumkin, which had a perfect balance of sweetness and spice, with just a hint of fresh pumpkin and a light hoppiness. Then there was the Harpoon UFO Pumpkin, with a smooth body lightened by the addition of wheat, giving the beer a crisp, fresh flavor.

Along similar lines was the Lakefront Pumpkin Lager. Lagers are not generally the go-to option for pumpkin brews, so I was intrigued. It was crystal clear and light, as expected, with a nice pumpkin spice aroma, and a hint of pumpkin in the body. It would go well with Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, made by one of the country's oldest brewpubs (founded in 1983). This ale had a similarly pale appearance, with a light body and good carbonation. It's made with baked and roasted pumpkins, and would make a great introduction for novice beer drinkers branching out into the full-bodied seasonal beers of autumn.

Then, of course, we have the classic style, heavy on spice, with sweet notes of fresh pumpkin pie coming across in the nose and up-front in the body, as well. Good Gourd by Cigar City was fantastic. I don't know what these guys are up to, but every time they set to recreate a flavor (as evidenced by their Oatmeal Raisin Cookie), they nail it. This was heftier in alcohol content and had a wonderful, chewy body with a pronounced spice profile, owing to the addition to characteristically unique ingredients, such as Ceylon cinnamon, Jamaican allspice and Zanzibar clove.

In similar style was the ever-popular Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which employs the usual pumpkin beer spices, as well as cardamom, giving it a bit of an extra bite. This was very full-bodied, sweet and flavorful, and has always been a favorite of mine. I also tried the near-legendary Southern Tier Pumpking, which was simply unreal in terms of liquid recreation of the classic pumpkin pie flavor. Outstanding.

On the lighter end of this spectrum we have Dogfish Head's Punkin and Shock Top's Pumpkin Wheat. Say what you will about the latter, but this was a solid brew. The label instructs you to swirl the last half-inch of sediment in the bottle and pour it into the beer, giving it a nice kick of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. The mouthfeel was somewhat grainy due to the wheat addition, with high carbonation, starting sweet and ending up more rounded at the finish. The Dogfish Head was fantastic, as usual, and had a great fresh-out-of-the-oven pumpkin flavor. The addition of brown sugar gave it a little boost, both in flavor and alcohol content.

Finally, I tried a few beers with a fresh take on the style. The Starr Hill Boxcar Pumpkin adds pumpkin to the mash of an English-style porter, creating a dry, smooth beer that really showcases the fresh pumpkin and spice. Tommyknocker's Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest Ale was really something else, with a heavily-roasted flavor and dark appearance, resulting from the addition of molasses, which lends it a rich, sweet character. This one had almost no aroma, but the body was full and sharp, almost like a rauchbier, but with subtle pumpkin and spice tone. Awesome.

Finally, we have the Woodchuck Private Reserve Pumpkin Cider, which is not a beer at all! The Private Reserve series ciders are always worth a look, and this one is no exception. The cider base is very sweet, balanced out by the flavor of fresh pumpkin. Before bottling, the cider is aged in American white-oak casks, giving it a bit of extra complexity.

Last time, I promised a shootout, and here it is.

For beers focusing on pumpkin as their primary flavor, I choose the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale for its bold and hoppy approach to the style.

For more traditional efforts, reminding one of a liquid pumpkin pie, Southern Tier's Pumking takes the cake — er, pie — although Cigar City and Weyerbacher were heard to beat.

And for non-traditional, innovative approaches to pumpkin beermaking, I have to go with Tommyknocker's Small Patch Pumpkin Harvest Ale.

You really won't go wrong with any of these though, and I hope everyone enjoys this year's offerings as much as I did!

— jg@saintbeat.com

Pumpkin beers deliver fall flavors in a bottle 10/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 2:18pm]

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