Serious Eats: Drinks

Serious Beer: The Best Pumpkin Ales

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

Among my fellow beer nerds, it's not the need for long sleeves that makes it autumn. It's not the burnished leaves or the candy corn. The real reason to be excited for the coming of fall is the arrival of autumn seasonal beers.

Last year, I wondered innocently if pumpkin beer could even be considered serious beer; but I've since learned that quite a few craft breweries are making tasty pumpkin beers, some spiced up like my favorite pie, others drier and squashier. I like both styles when they're done well. Here's a sampler of this year's pumpkin brews.

Do you have a favorite pumpkin beer? Let us know in the comments!

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Mindblowing; a new favorite
**** Awesome, stock up on this
*** Around average for the style
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.

The Winners

If it smells like cinnamon swirl bread and pours like motor oil, it's probably Elysian's Dark 'O the Moon Pumpkin Stout. This smooth stout has prominent cinnamon flavors, but the spice is tempered by rich, roasty coffee notes and hints of pumpkin. At the finish, there's a bit of dried chocolate flavor, like Oreos without the filing. Though it's delicious as an after-dinner drink, it's not a sweet dessert beer, which I appreciate. Understated and nicely made.
****1/2

As much as I was seduced by the Dark 'O the Moon, Elysian's The Great Pumpkin is a serious contender for favorite. The scent is heady with nutmeg, like a freshly-fried pumpkin donut. It's rich and decadent, creamy with delicate spicing (and none of the mouthful-of-teabags flavor that bad pumpkin ales have.) A delicious example of the style.
****1/2

The scent of Wolaver's Will Steven's Pumpkin Ale is fresh and squash, not spiced. This beer has nice malt flavors, like a good copper ale, and a crisp finish, plus a touch of hopped bitterness. This is not desserty; it just has a hint of spice, but mostly tastes like a mouthful of roasted pumpkin followed by a swig of beer. Really well integrated and drinkable.
****

This year's Elysian Night Owl is polished and pretty elegant, with a big pumpkin aroma. It's not quite as sweet as the other Elysian pumpkin offerings, but there are nice spices and a rich ginger note. This isn't as decadent a beer as its bigger brothers, but it's enjoyable and drinkable.
****

At 9% ABV, Shipyard's Smashed Pumpkin isn't kidding around. It's an intense boozy bomb that will appeal to those who love their cocktails full of fresh ginger and bourbon. Caramel, cinnamon, and orange oil notes come through, as well has an herbal, musky note. If you're a fan of imperial IPAs, this may be the fall beer for you, but if you're not used to intense beers, you'll be overwhelmed.
****

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At Elysian Brewing Company's annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, they take a giant pumpkin, hollow it out, then add beer to it for a secondary fermentation. Then the pumpkin is tapped at the party! [Photograph: Elysian Brewing]

More Solid Choices

I'm not opposed to eating pumpkin butter by the spoonful, and the Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale from Steven's Point Brewery in Wisconsin isn't far off. This rich, spicy beer is sweet but balanced, decadent with plenty of pumpkin flavor (and a hint of creamy banana.) There are no off-flavors despite the intensity of the spicing, which is impressive.
***3/4

New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale around, but that doesn't mean they should take it for granted. The Post Road is a solid choice of the more-pumpkin/less-pie style. It's subtly spiced and pretty well balanced (though we could use just a bit less in the clove department— my husband said this one reminded him of clove cigarettes.) That said, the pumpkin flavor is good and squashy and the beer is dry and crisp. Pair it with a huge platter of spaghetti and meatballs.
***3/4

Weyerbacher's Imperial Pumpkin Ale has a rich, spicy scent, and doesn't taste as sweet as you'd expect from the nose. It's smooth and has a lemony brightness to balance in intensity of the spicing. Unfortunately some tasters found the cardamom note a little soapy, but if you're a fan of cardamom, you'll love this beer.
***3/4

Fans wait all year for Southern Tier's Pumking. The aroma evokes pie filling and nutty graham crackers. It's a sweet beer with hints of gingersnaps, nutmeg, and a ton of (slightly fake-tasting) vanilla. I like this beer, especially with food, but it's not quite perfect. There's a bitter hoppy edge that fights a little at the finish with the dessert qualities of this beer. Though I give them points for ambition, it wasn't my favorite.
***3/4

O' Fallon's Pumpkin Beer from Missouri has wonderful biscuity, cornbready malt flavors, plus a touch of cinnamon-spiced apple butter. It's not a fancy beer, but it's really well balanced, fruity and fresh.
***3/4

The Others We Tried

Though some complain that New Holland Brewery's Ichabod is a little thin, I really enjoyed the flavor. It's spiced but not sweet, with a solid bitterness at the finish. This isn't a candy-coated beer. It has a bit of roasty flavor and a little spicy heat from the cinnamon. If you like your squash and pumpkin roasted in the oven, you'll probably like this beer. The pumpkin flavor is subtle but present, and the whisper of smoke makes this a perfect fall bonfire beer. It would be particularly nice with roast chicken or chili and cornbread.
***1/2

Fire Island's Pumpkin Barrel Ale is refreshing for a pumpkin beer. It's drinkable and chai-spiced, though not overdone. The pumpkin is in there somewhere, though it's pretty subtle. Solid, if not inspiring.
***1/2

A strong alcohol scent dominates the nose of River Horse's Hipp-O-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale but the booze is pretty well integrated into the flavor of this 9% ABV brew. There's just a bit of squashy pumpkin flavor, followed by a blast of spices. Considering the high level of alcohol, it's impressively dry.
***1/2

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale from St. Louis has a rich pumpkin pie filling scent and good body. There's a prominent brown sugar flavor and plenty of spice. This beer has good body (not shocking at 8% ABV) but it's a little rough on the edges.
***1/4

The Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale is more beery than some, crisp with an almost pilsner-like hopping. There are hints of cinnamon and nutmeg and a heavy dose of cloves. This beer is a little too light in body to support all the spice.
***1/4

If you're looking for less pumpkin and more spice, give Southampton's Pumpkin Ale a try. It's pure pie on the nose, but I felt that the heavily spiced flavor overpowered the pumpkin a little and emphasized the bitterness of the brew. This might be a good one for fans of cinnamon chai, but it didn't really excite me.
**3/4

Disclosure: All beers except the Southhampton, Wolaver's, River Horse, New Holland, and Brooklyn were provided as samples for review.

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