In 2012, I had the bright idea to gather as many pumpkin beers as I could find and hold a taste test. I split half a dozen or so pumpkin beers with my girlfriend and my buddy Joey.
Last year, we acquired ten beers. Another friend accompanied us, and I took detailed tasting notes. I decided the Saint Arnold Pumpkinator was the best overall, but the Wasatch Pumpkin Ale was the best for easy and regular drinking (as great as the Pumpkinator is, it's still a heavy, specialty beer, not one you'll want to have three or four of out on a patio on a crisp fall day).
This year, we decided to go all-out, get as many as we could find, and have a party. We had so many that I had to split this article in two; one to discuss ales and the other for stouts and other heavier, stronger beers. With 27 beers in total*, we did our best to grab one of every type of pumpkin beer we could find, with a variety of ales, stouts, and other beers from all across America (and one from Belgium). Multiple breweries released more than one variety of pumpkin beer; this was most often done with one as an ale and the other as a stout, such as with Wasatch and Southern Tier.
(* - We tried 28 in total for the taste test, but we were not able to acquire the Buffalo Bayou Whiskey'd Pumpkin Spice Latte at the same time as the others.)
Comparing them all across the same scale seemed silly, as a 5 percent easy-drinking ale is a much different animal than a 10 percent stout or oak-aged heavy ale. So I've split this comparison into "light" and "heavy" beers. Some of the "light" beers are still relatively heavy in alcohol, but are here based on body and style (or even just because the brewery released an even darker, stronger pumpkin beer, as in the case of Southern Tier Pumking).
Without further ado, here are some highlights from the former.
A list of the pumpkin ales sampled:
Anderson Valley Fall Hornin' Pumpkin Ale, 6 percent ABV Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale, 5 percent ABV Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, 6 percent ABV Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, 7 percent ABV Harpoon UFO Pumpkin Unfiltered Pumpkin Ale, 5.9 percent ABV Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream Pumpkin Ale, 5.4 percent ABV Nebraska Wick for Brains Pumpkin Ale, 5.4 percent ABV New Belgium Pumpkick, 6 percent ABV Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, 5.6 percent ABV Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale, 4.7 percent ABV Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, 5.8 percent ABV Southern Tier Pumking, 8.6 percent ABV Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus, 4 percent ABV Uinta Punk'n Harvest Pumpkin Ale, 5 percent ABV Upslope Pumpkin Ale, 7.7 percent ABV Wasatch Pumpkin Seasonal Ale, 4 percent ABV
Best beer when you want a lot of beer: Wasatch Pumpkin Seasonal
At only 4 percent ABV, the Wasatch is the lightest beer on this list, and perhaps the most refreshing as well. It would be easy for a beer this light to either be over-sweetened or to lack flavor, but the Wasatch strikes a good balance by emphasizing more of the lighter, fruitier notes on the nose, as opposed to many of the other ales, which often had the spicier flavors overwhelming the actual pumpkin taste.
Runners-up: Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale. The Harpoon UFO Pumpkin is tasty and easy to drink, but I find it to feel pretty filling after I've had a few. Our "best overall ale" could easily fit into this category, as you'll see.
Most Unique: Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus
The Timmermans is both very light on the alcohol and a sour beer. That bit of tartness made a big difference; I really enjoyed it and found it uniquely refreshing as a welcome contrast to the rest of the selection. It wouldn't be my best overall or even the one I'd most frequently drink, but it's both unique and good.
The Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale wasn't my favorite-- I don't really care for the hoppy, bitter finish in my pumpkin ales-- but that finish and the very floral nose were a welcome change of pace from a collection that was too heavily dominated by brown-amber beers with a vague finish of pumpkin pie.
Most "tastes like a pumpkin": Rogue Pumpkin Patch
Many "pumpkin beers" are really better described as "pumpkin pie" beers, or "pumpkin spice" beers, which are really more about the balance of fall spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon. The Rogue Pumpkin Patch, part of their Rogue Farms GYO line, is the one that most tasted like a fresh pumpkin (or at least, what I imagine one tastes like)- it was clean and crisp, and it didn't really have any of the spices we now typically associate with "pumpkin" flavor. Very refreshing and enjoyable.
Most Disappointing: Upslope Pumpkin Ale
Upslope Brewing in Boulder, Colorado makes some fine beers-- in particular, I'm fond of its pale ale and IPA as being flavorful while also being easy to drink and not overwhelming. Its pumpkin ale was easy enough to drink, but it paled in flavor, ordinary and indistinguishable.
Perhaps it merely suffered in comparison to all the other pumpkin beers. Either way, it simply didn't do anything to stand out among the crowd and warrant a recommendation. This may be unfair (after all, the beers it failed to stand out from were also nothing special), but I had higher hopes for Upslope considering the quality of their other beers.
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Best Overall: Shipyard Pumpkinhead
A friend had recommended Pumpkinhead for years, even telling us he had it shipped to him from California back when he lived on the East Coast. It lived up to the hype, with sweet and complex flavors that not only stood out from the more standard fall-spice fare but were well balanced in their own right. A remarkable amount of complexity for a relatively light beer.
Runners-up: The Southern Tier Pumking and Dogfish Head Punkin Ale were two fine efforts; as one might expect, two of the stronger beers in the ale tasting were also two of the most flavorful. However, more isn't always better; these two stand out not simply for their flavor, but for the way their combinations of body, pumpkin flavor, and spices complement one another.
Next time: We'll discuss the darker, heavier beers, including some local selections.