The leaves are changing, the temperatures are dropping, and the sun is setting early enough that “Look, it’s dark, time to go to sleep” just might get your kids in bed by a reasonable hour. With fall also comes one of the trendiest beer flavors: pumpkin. Just about every brewery makes a variation of pumpkin beer now. It’s the thing. Pumpkin beer is also quite divisive. People love ‘em or hate ‘em.
I generally buy a couple of bottles of what I’m going to taste for the week. I’ve usually had most of them before, so I don’t get more than a few to drink and photograph. This week, though, I bought at least four of the beers I tried. I had one of each at the beginning of the week, again a couple days later, and then again before writing. I gave my palate a lasting chance to figure out pumpkin beers, and came away with one favorite, one that was pretty good, and one that was lacking.
How Pumpkin Beer Come to Be
First let’s talk about what pumpkin beer is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Pumpkin beers are mostly, but not exclusively ales. Some brewers throw in actual cut or smashed pumpkins into their mash, some use pumpkin purée like you would for a pie, and others opt just for pumpkin flavoring. Most of these ales are pretty malty, low on bitterness, and high on the sweet, savory spices of the pumpkin flavors.
With the varying pumpkin and spice inputs, you get a broad variety for these beers. Some are heavy on the allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Some are not. I tend to like the beers that are closer to pumpkin pie in a glass, but that’s just me.
I tried three beers this week. I got the Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale, the Punkin Ale from Dogfish Head, and the Nightmare on 1st Street Imperial Pumpkin Ale from No Label Brewing.
I don’t generally drink anything that’s from the Bud, Miller, or Coors family, but Blue Moon is an incredibly popular brand and their pumpkin ale is very easy to find, so I gave it a shot. This was my least favorite of the beers I tried. It’s the lightest in color of the three, and had the least real pumpkin flavor of the bunch. As I moved along in the pumpkin beer tasting I realized this was the most “industrial grade” of the beers I had, which makes sense since it comes from the folks at Coors.
Now For the Yummier Pumpkin Beer
Then I had the one everyone who likes pumpkin beers was telling me to try, the Punkin Ale from the good folks at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. These guys make some great beers, particularly their incredibly punchy 60, 90, and 120 minute IPAs, which are worthy of an entire column. This was my second favorite of the beers, much better than the Blue Moon but just shy of the No Label variety. It’s a copper pour, very full-bodied brown ale that is brewed with actual pumpkin plus allspice, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It comes closer to that drinkable pumpkin pie flavor.
Finally, I had the Nightmare on 1st Street Imperial Pumpkin Ale from No Label Brewing Co. in Katy, Texas. This brewery located just off of I-10 in Houston’s largest suburb makes their pumpkin ale as part of their “Off Label” series. This pumpkin beer uses an imperial amber ale as its base, or “binding potion,” as they describe it. It’s full of rich, roasty pumpkin flavor plus a heavy dose of clove and ginger, and a nice dash of allspice and cinnamon. This is pumpkin pie in a glass. This is what I want to drink while eating dessert on Thanksgiving night. It’s a damn good beer.
That brings up a good point. A good pumpkin beer is a tasty, sweet, solid beer. You’re not going to pound these while watching the World Series. These are beers that you have with desert (or breakfast instead of those overrated Starbucks “Pumpkin Spice” Lattes). So if you’re up for it, grab a few of these and try them out before the holidays. When you find one you like, keep some around for after Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkin pie plus pumpkin beer will make for a great way to close out Turkey Day.