A Tale of Two Bottles: Saint Arnold Pumpkinator 2013 Vs. 2014
It was the best of beers, it was the blurst of beers? Stupid monkeys!
Nicholas L. Hall
I have a habit of accidentally cellaring beer. I see something interesting, bring it home, and forget about it amid all the other interesting things I bring home. Sometimes, I just keep "waiting to drink it," looking for some nebulous "right time" that doesn't really exist.
Sometimes, it doesn't work out particularly well. I'm pretty sure, for example, that the bottle of Karbach El Hopadillo Negro I just found behind a stash of FUN Series bottles hasn't improved with age. Then again, I'm not even entirely sure how much age it has. Part and parcel with the notion of accidental cellaring is the fact that nothing is labeled. That's why I love dated releases, which at least allow me to determine exactly how long I've been ignoring a bottle.
I ignored a couple of bottles of Pumpkinator for almost exactly a year. The fresh version hadn't really grabbed me, so I was in no rush to drink them. They got pushed to the back of the beer fridge, only discovered when I needed to stash the 2014 bottles I'd stumbled across while at the store on a diaper run. I will not make a special trip to the store just to snag a special release beer, but I will make a special trip to the store just for diapers. I mean, a man has to have priorities.
Since I had both fresh and aged samples available, it seemed as good a "right time" as any to drink them both together for a side by side comparison. For drinkers who are relatively new to aging beer (on purpose or by accident), a side by side tasting (call it a "vertical" if you want) of the same beer over a couple of years can really help highlight the effects of aging. Sometimes (as I assume will hold true for that Hopadillo), the effects aren't that pretty. Fortunately for me, Pumpkinator ages gracefully.
Perhaps it's because I'm pouring into these tiny snifters (big beer tastings want small glasses), but I can't get a head on this one. Dark reddish brown coloration throughout the glass.
The aroma is all medicinal booze and spice, leading with cinnamon and clove. It smells a lot like Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur of which I am quite fond. There's a subtle grape background, but you definitely get mostly booze and a cloying, Yankee Candle spice drawer punch to the nose. There is no hint of pumpkin.
On the palate, the first wave reminds me of these weird chocolate cookies from Maryland. Bergers. I was gifted a pack of them in a corporate swag bag a few months back, as an exit gift when my business unit was bought away from its Baltimore parent. I also got a box of logo-branded gold balls and a tin of Old Bay. Weirdest swag ever.
Once you're past the chocolate, which has a funky molasses twinge to it that I kind of like, the spices bum rush the palate. It's not as bad as the cinnamon dare, but it's pretty aggressive. Interestingly, the booze is not as apparent in the taste as it was in the aroma.
This is an aggressive beer that doesn't have much room for true complexity. It's just a wallop of flavor. Drinking it fresh again, I can understand why it failed to grab me in the first place. It's just too hot, too dense, too much.
The top pops with an understated hiss. A seriously vigorous pour results in a bubbly head, which quickly fades to black, with a deep root beer color when held up to the light.
The smell opens with gingerbread. Subtle spices follow, with cloves a strong front runner. Powdered ginger and gentle cinnamon bring up the rear. It's not boozy or hot at all, and I 'd swear you can smell the actual pumpkin. There's also a slightly burnt brown sugar aroma that comes in on the back end.
The first sip is full-on freaking pumpkin pie. All of those warring notes in the fresh version are fully integrated. The pumpkin is surprisingly pronounced, mellowing the spices, and the sweetness has taken on a rounded quality. Booziness is subdued at best. An almost smoky finish of burnt marshmallow is a nice note I'd not gotten before. Fresh, I found it sharp and insistently spiced. Now, the spice notes are well integrated, accenting the whole instead of running roughshod over everything.
As much as the fresh version doesn't work for me, the aged bottle really does. It's like the ideas have had time to coalesce, as if it's still in rough draft form when it's just been bottled, and the editors do all the work over time in storage. It's trimmed of its excess, rendered leaner and more cohesive.
I'm still holding a bottle or two of the '13, and now have it stashed (purposefully) alongside some '14. In another year, I'll do this again and see what's changed.
Anyone else out there holding on to Pumpkinator? If you've cracked an older bottle this year, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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