Fewer beers qualified for our stout/dark tasting than our ale competition, which is no surprise. Even so, the sheer number of strong, heavy, and dark beers we found available for our taste test is a testament to how many craft brewers are jumping on the pumpkin beer wagon and taking the opportunity to make a serious beer this time of year.
Included in our taste test were four beers from Houston-area breweries. (To my knowledge, a local brewery didn't come out with a lighter ale, at least not anywhere we searched.)
Alaskan Pumpkin Porter Buffalo Bayou Whiskey'd Pumpkin Spice Latte Crown Valley Imperial Pumpkin Smash Karbach Krunkin Punkin Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale No Label Nightmare on 1st Street Rahr and Sons Visionary Brew Pumpkin Ale Saint Arnold Pumpkinator 2014 Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin Southern Tier Warlock Uinta Crooked Line Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Wasatch Black-O-Lantern
The first thing I wanted to say is that none of these beers were bad: They all had their own appeals, and unlike the ale selections, where a number of the beers tended to be too indistinguishable, these each had distinct characteristics: some tasted more of pumpkin, whereas in others the spices were dominant. Some of them were dark or even medium-brown ales (the Kentucky entry could have fit into the ales discussion), and some were double-digit ABV, dark stouts. Some had sweeter finishes, some had boozier ones. But they all had some merit.
Onward with some discussion of specific beers, and the best overall.
Most tastes like a pumpkin: Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
It still would finish in second to the Rogue Pumpkin Patch, but the Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin was the strong beer that tasted most like pumpkins, as opposed to pumpkin spice or "a dark stout with hints of fall." While the Smashed Pumpkin had hints of cherry and vanilla, these weren't the typical "pumpkin spice" flavors, and the taste of actual pumpkin shone through nicely here.
Best beer that had little to do with pumpkins: Crown Valley Imperial Pumpkin Smash
The Crown Valley Stout was delicious and rich in flavor, with strong notes of chocolate and toffee on the nose. However, those were the dominant flavors of the beer, and while it was very tasty and enjoyable, one of the best beers on this list, I didn't really taste anything that could be described as pumpkin or even "pumpkin spice." I'm certainly not opposed to strong flavors that aren't pumpkin spice in a beer, but it was odd to taste a beer labeled as a pumpkin beer that didn't seem to contain any of the expected flavors.
Best local: Saint Arnold Pumpkinator 2014 Runner-up: No Label Off-Label Nightmare on 1st Street
Best overall: Saint Arnold Pumpkinator 2014 Runners-up: Crown Valley Imperial Pumpkin Smash, Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale
The Saint Arnold takes the crown for the second year in a row. The rich and spicy nose, the hints of cocoa, and the boozy body combine all the best aspects of the other beers I sampled. It's a rich, rewarding, and complex beer that continues to open up for a while after being poured and let sit. There's a reason it's one of Saint Arnold's most popular, and one of its quickest to sell out when it becomes available. (By the way, if you can track it down, you owe it to yourself to try to the Saint Arnold Bishops Barrel 6-- the Pumpkinator is aged in rum barrels, which adds to the booziness and to the sweetness in a unique way-- if you've ever had rum cake, the effect is similar.)
In local beers, I had to give an "incomplete" grade to the Buffalo Bayou. We were able to try an experimental batch of "Whiskey'd" Pumpkin Spice Latte-- not barrel-aged, but aged with whiskey-soaked oak chips. We didn't get much, though, so I couldn't form a full opinion, and it was tasty, but the whiskey wasn't distinct. The beer itself was still pretty good, but I hadn't tried the original, so I didn't know if the oak chips improved the beer or if I should dock it because they didn't have much effect. The Pumpkin Spice Latte was a very limited run, so I won't have a chance to rate it until it's available again.
As far as the overall runners-up: Even though I mentioned that the Crown Valley wasn't particularly pumpkin-flavored, it was still an undeniably rich and delicious beer. And Kentucky found a winner with its signature beer, the Bourbon Barrel Ale, which, uniquely among barrel-aged beers, is a beer crafted to be malleable enough that the aging causes it to primarily pick up the flavors of the bourbon. Most barrel-aged beers already come with their own strong flavors, and the aging merely adds booziness and alcohol to an already strong beer. The Bourbon Barrel Ale really tastes like what I'd think of when I think of a beer that tastes like bourbon. This twist on it, with some pumpkin and spices added, is still well-balanced and a good, unique selection.
I couldn't decide between the two for second place, since they're quite different, yet both delicious. That should be no surprise, though-- like I said, this was a strong group of beers, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Other people at the tasting party declared many of the others their personal favorites. You can't really go wrong with any of them.