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The Great Pumpkin Experiment of 2013

Fall was approaching. My Tumblr dashboard was increasingly filled with a pro-autumn agenda. Pumpkin lattes. Apple cider. Cinnamon. Cloves. Nutmeg.

I was walking through Wegmans and saw their mixed six pack holders. Next to them, rows of fall seasonals. Harvest ales, Oktoberfests and… pumpkin ales.

I filled the cardboard case with the glee of a squirrel filling its cheeks. Fall! I could scarcely contain my joy.

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Shipyard Pumpkinhead

That night I opened the first bottle, lifting the glass to my nose and savoring the aroma. Cinnamon and… cloves, I thought. The head quickly faded but I didn’t care. It had a pretty full mouthfeel despite somewhat thin carbonation. There was a good pumpkin flavor, accentuated by spices: cinnamon, maybe a bit of nutmeg. It was sweet but not cloying, drying out moderately in the finish. I’d like a bit more depth from it, and I wouldn’t want it year-round, but for pumpkin season it was a pretty good way to start.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

My initial impression was pumpkin and ginger in the nose, which was odd since the bottle didn’t list ginger among the spices. It seemed neither like a brown ale nor 7% abv, though I do trust Sam Calagione. It had a nicely full body, a chewy sipper I could appreciate on a cold night. I would actually have liked a little more spice: I’m usually a Ron Swansonesque “I want my beer to taste like beer and my coffee to taste like coffee and my whiskey to taste like whiskey” kind of guy but this was fall, dammit. It gave me the impression of being Pumking Lite (Which was good! Pumking can be a bit much). As it warmed, and I sipped, the spices became more prominent. I changed my mind: I wouldn’t want more. Let this warm up if you drink it!

Blue Point Pumpkin Ale

2013-10-17 20.18.59Immediately: the most pumpkin aroma of any beer so far. Quickly afterward: the aroma has faded. The carbonation felt a bit thin: I really must figure out if there’s anything to my McKayla Maroney face whenever I see that a bottle is twist off. Does it hurt the beer or am I more of a snob than I’d like? “A twist off? How gauche.” Initially I tasted more pumpkin than spice: that was okay, I thought.

Honestly, they were already all sort of blending together. I liked them, but pumpkin spice is pumpkin spice, apparently. There was possibly ginger? That might be hops or spice astringency. Something seemed different in the aftertaste, coming off as a little vegetal. I think more malt would help this.

Saranac Pumpkin Ale

I was met with a really pleasant pumpkin aroma, albeit with the least “meaty” pumpkin flavor of the lot so far. It was still a little cold when I started drinking it but I liked the balance between the pumpkin and malt and the spices. It was maybe a little thin, similar to the Blue Point but without the bitterness.

This was the most drinkable so far, though it would have been nice to taste it next to the Pumpkinhead.

A.P.E.S. Pumpkin Scotch Ale

Yes, the same beer that I drank during Risk Legacy. Hey, if you’re going to give me a pumpkin beer while I’m writing a post about pumpkin beers I’m going to make it do double duty.

Finally, a beer that wasn’t just “hey it’s a beer and guys we put in pumpkin!” The scotch ale base was solid, giving a delicious platform on which the spices could build. The flavor was that of toffee pudding, sweet and rich and full of caramel, with a carefully crafted mixture of spices on top.

Southern Tier Warlock

That’s right, another Risk beer.

I don’t know exactly what spice blend Southern Tier uses, but it’s identical or nearly so between Warlock and Pumking. It’s distinctively Southern Tier, but Warlock adds in the extra dimensions that come with an imperial stout. Roasted, black coffee bitterness with very little pumpkin but plenty of spices. It’s a tossup between this and the A.P.E.S. so far as to which I like better.

Long Trail Pumpkin Ale

The aroma was ginger and cloves. I liked the intensity of the flavor: it was full bodied, slightly sweet and packing a good amount of spice. I thought back to the Punkin and how the spices became more pronounced as it warmed, wondering if this would become overpowering as I drank it. There was plenty of caramel but not necessarily too much pumpkin: the spices were there, but the gourd itself may have been lacking. I didn’t care: it tasted good, and never became too intense.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale

The aroma was the now-familiar blend of cinnamon and cloves. I’ll be honest: I’ve begun to regret this experiment. Pumpkin beers are, by and large, the same.

There’s a really great balance of spice to malt here, second perhaps only to the Long Trail. It’s a little bitter at the end for me, which does detract from the experience.

In the end

I think I’ve learned a few things, about pumpkin beer and myself. For one: they’re very similar. Unless it’s something more than a “pumpkin ale” it will be virtually indistinguishable. Pumking, Punkin, Warlock, the A.P.E.S. pumpkin scotch ale, they have something to set them apart. The rest take an otherwise unremarkable base and add some spices and, possibly, pumpkin puree to get the final product.

But I also think I was looking for too much. Pumpkin beers aren’t spectacular examples of subtlety and nuance, but: so? When the leaves change and you can see your breath and I start to feel an odd desire to wear a scarf, a little pumpkin in my life can be good. Don’t make too much of it, don’t examine them too closely, just order anything on the menu that says “pumpkin” and have a good time.

It’s November, though, and I think it’s time for me to move on.