Call me a grouch, but I've grown weary as the arrival of "seasonal" pumpkin beers comes earlier every year, with breweries engaging in a veritable arms race to get their pumpkin beer on the shelf before everyone else.
I used to eagerly await the annual harvest of pumpkin beers, but it's hard to maintain that enthusiasm when those brews are suddenly on tap in July. Still, there's room in my glass for a few rounds of new pumpkin beers, most of which had the decency to wait for summer to end before popping up on local taps and shelves.
The traditional approach has been to throw a little pumpkin into a golden or brown ale and then spice it up a little with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and even vanilla. Erie Brewing Co.'s Johnny Rails is a great example of the classic style, offering an even balance between the base beer's light maltiness, caramelized pumpkin notes and subtle spice. Meanwhile, Anderson Valley's Fall Hornin' is maltier still, with a medium-bodied brown ale base that starts out rich and nutty but conservatively spiced, finishing out clean and dry.
Terrapin Beer Company hits two seasonal notes in one with its Pumpkin Fest, a classic Märzen (Oktoberfest lager) given the spice treatment, which results in a big, spicy nose but a clean, crisp and almost subdued taste. In this case, subtlety pays off — I could drink more than a couple of these without my mouth tasting like a Yankee Candle store.
Some brewers opt for the huge flavors that some of the hottest pumpkin beers have popularized in recent years, and one of my favorites happens to be a local brew. Tampa Bay Brewing Company's Gourds Gone Wild is a spice bomb, filled with rich vanilla and nutmeg notes, all wrapped up in a smooth, rich and very decadent package. On a similar tip is Steven's Point Whole Hog, which literally tastes like pumpkin pie filling straight from the can. Note that this is not a criticism, as canned pumpkin-pie filling is delicious.
And then there's Southern Tier, the kings of this over-the-top style. The new release is Warlock, an imperial stout flavored with the same liquid pumpkin pie magic that Southern Tier Pumking is infamous for. The nose alone on this brew could keep me busy for an hour, but the taste is worth diving into as soon as possible. It's slightly tannic (like many good stouts), with chewy roasted barley notes, as well as a healthy serving of chocolate and coffee.
Not enough flavor, you say? Try Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Pumpkin Ale. Like the original Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, this is sweet, slightly bourbony, and filled with vanilla, cherry, brown sugar and light oak notes. The extra depth added by pumpkin and the usual spices really takes it over the top. Call it a dessert beer, maybe — a sweet tooth is strongly suggested.
Of course, not all pumpkin beers need fit the usual paradigm — nor do they need to be beers at all. Traveler Beer Company has released its new seasonal, Jack-O Traveler, a shandy — yes, shandy — flavored with pumpkin and spices, creating an unusual interplay between the tart, zesty lemon peel aroma and the rich, pumpkin pie sweetness. At 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, it's also one of the most sessionable pumpkin beers around.
Doc's Draft Pumpkin Hard Apple Cider is another different twist. This one's not a beer; rather, it's a tart apple cider with a nose of mulling spices and a flavor that's an intriguing balance of apple and pumpkin, followed by a dry finish. It's like an apple pie made from green apples and pumpkin pie spice, which — as unusual as that sounds — is pretty tasty.
Finally, a very different spin on the pumpkin beer craze. Kor Dark, a mysterious beer contract-brewed in the Czech Republic (seriously, try and find some background on it) is actually brewed with pumpkin seeds, rather than the fruit itself. The result is a sweet and very malty brew filled with coffee notes and a subtle, smoky earthiness from the addition of Styrian pumpkin seeds.
I hesitate to even throw Kor Dark into the pumpkin beer category, but if not that, then what? At the very least, it shows that there's still room for a little creativity, and that's enough to make me keep me looking forward to pumpkin beers, as ridiculous as their release schedule tends to be.