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Can Pumpkin Beer Be Serious Beer?

We tried seven pumpkin beers. And the real discovery? How much better they tasted with food.

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[Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]

20091007pumpkinglasses.jpgBefore this week, I'd never acquired a pumpkin ale on purpose. I knew some people liked them. And I love the idea of fresh beer crafted specially for the season. Sure, make a beer to celebrate autumn—the scent of crisp leaves, the arrival of brisk breezes—but isn't that what Oktoberfest's m√§rzenbier is for? Surely jack-o-lantern flavored, cinnamon-perfumed beer isn't serious beer.

I stand (somewhat) corrected.

After tasting seven pumpkin brews, I must say a few of them are pretty tasty. Some really are beers with good balance and a hint of squash flavor. Some brewers add shredded raw or roasted pumpkin to the mash along with roasted pumpkin seeds, while others add pumpkin puree (or pumpkin flavor extract—yes, we disapprove) later in the process. Skillful brewmasters manage to introduce a hint of spice, adding nutmeg, cinnamon, and even a sprinkling of brown sugar, without turning their beers into liquid dessert. Others, I'm sorry to say, cross that line. It could be what you're looking for, but I'll stick with pie.

The real surprise here was discovering how perfectly a pumpkin beer can pair with food. Straight from the bottle, some pumpkin ales might seem a little too sweet, a little too vanilla-scented. But the right pumpkin beer turned out to be an amazing match with my latest batch of this spin on Cincinnati-style chili.

The chili is spiked with chipotles, cumin, coriander, and a few ingredients that might surprise you: cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and a shaving of unsweetened chocolate. With each sip, the pumpkin beer accented those flavors: the aromatics in the beer resonated with similar spices in the chili. Not all beer styles could stand up to this dish and really complement it, but the pumpkin, clove, and malty notes in the full-bodied ale deepened the chili's flavors instead of covering them up or just erasing them from our mouths.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite
**** Awesome, worth remembering
*** We'd consider buying this again
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Chili's Perfect Partner

Elysian Brewing Night Owl Pumpkin Ale (Washington, USA) 5.8% ABV
The scent of pumpkin and cloves struck us before we even took a sip of this Seattle brew. When unaccompanied, we found it a little too sweet, and vanilla slightly overpowered the other flavors. When paired with food, though, the toasted malt and pumpkin notes came through. This full-bodied beer has a prominent brown sugar and nutmeg flavor that's balanced with hoppy brightness. If you're looking for a once-a-year true beer-full-of-pumpkin experience, find yourself one of these. Just be sure to bring the chili and the sharp cheddar.
**** when paired with food
*** when unaccompanied

Delicious Straight from the Bottle

Wolaver's Will Stevens' Pumpkin Ale (Vermont, USA) 5.35% ABV
This organic pumpkin ale tastes more like beer than pumpkin. It's well-balanced and not too sweet with a hoppy crispness. A cinnamon and nutmeg flavor lingers, but this is a refreshing beer with light to medium body.
***1/2

Sippable

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (New Hampshire, USA) 5.1%  ABV
This medium-bodied beer had a hazy appearance. The malt and hop flavors aren't overpowered by pumpkin or spice—in fact, you had to look for the subtle pumpkin flavor. Some tasters enjoyed the citrusy hops in this beer, while others found it too bitter.
***

Dogfish Head Punkin' Ale (Delaware, USA) 7% ABV
This beer veers slightly into sweeter territory, with a hint of pumpkin on top of caramel malt flavors. Allspice and cinnamon add to the pie-like taste, but this is pretty well balanced. You probably wouldn't drink many of these in a row, but this warming ale was appealing to some of our tasters.
***
Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout (Massachusetts, USA) 7% ABV
This was the only pumpkin stout we tasted, and while we liked it, we were not convinced that stout is the best beer style to carry pumpkin flavor. If you handed someone this beer in a glass, they might not suspect it had any pumpkin at all. That said, it was a nice beer for fall, with coffee flavors and a touch of vanilla. Crisp hops and lively carbonation balance out the nutmeg and cloves.
**1/2

Don't Trade Your Caramellos for These

Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale (Maine, USA) 4.5% ABV
This beer was the lightest in color of any we tried, perhaps due to the inclusion of wheat. It had a prominent honey flavor and scent, and the sweetness caused some tasters to compare it to apple cider. This was slightly less complex than others we tried.
**

Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale (New York, USA) 9% ABV
Don't be fooled by the cream soda taste of this one—this smooth, vanilla-scented ale is potent! While some tasters praised its "pie in a glass" flavor, others in our group found it too syrupy sweet. This is probably worth trying on draft, but this year's bottled version wasn't really our thing.
**

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