Serious Eats: Drinks
Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Pumpkin Beer
I had a happy enough childhood by most reasonable measures. My parents were nice people who didn't much care for children but loved and provided for me anyway. I give them a lot of credit for that, because it's easy to devote your life to raising your children if you happen to be wired to do so. My parents, despite their extreme youth, didn't know how to relate to children very well, which is why I was lucky enough to be raised as a miniature adult. Adults are WAY cooler than kids.
My parents weren't lenient, though; they had the usual assortment of capricious and tyrannical demands including but not limited to "Stop yelling all the time," "Do better in school," and "Please, please, please try to stop crashing our cars; it's getting really expensive and, come to think of it, probably dangerous too." So it's not like I was raised in some magical fantasy land where my parents actually UNDERSTOOD me or respected my opinions regarding yelling, failing, and crashing. But still, they were good people and they cared and they raised me well.
Since they related to me from toddlerhood as if I were a short, clingy adult with a lot to learn about responsibility and toilets, I was more than ready to strike out on my own after high school. I'm referring here to the spoiled middle-class kid's version of "on my own," meaning I went off to college on their dime, then graduated into a typically shabby and happy young adulthood in which I only saw them on holidays and other special occasions, such as when my car insurance was canceled. (State Farm shares my parents' narrow-minded worldview when it comes to alternative driving strategies and outcomes; I bike a lot now.)
Holidays weren't a big deal in our family once my sister and I moved out of the house. My parents weren't religious, or materialistic—except when it came to their precious little cars—so that cut out a couple of the big holidays, and even though Thanksgiving is light on the praying and the shopping, I've still never liked it as much as the next guy. So even though my little family got together to enjoy beer and each other's company on the high-rent calendar squares, holidays were never that big a deal to me.
For several years after my parents passed away, I spent most major holidays at bars and most minor holidays with friends, and I was content with the arrangement. But then I conned Emily into coming aboard as Bottom Shelf research coordinator, and her one demand during contract negotiations was that I become a Holiday Person. It turns out that she's from one of those weird families where they all pal around together well into the eldest child's 20s (and beyond???). This is perverse to be sure, but it suits me fine because her parents are good people and good cooks, so I'm happy to let them feed me and fest me whenever Hallmark or any other consortium of wise men tell them to.
Emily's parents handle the big indoor holidays and our friends are pretty reliable with the outdoor grilling ones, which leaves me, the novice Holiday Person, responsible only for the ones that fall in between, and no holiday's in-betweener than Halloween. Too cold to grill, not big enough for a day off work and a free roast beef from the research-coordinator-in-laws, but not small enough to ignore.
Emily's not a costume party person, so I dodge the highest caliber bullet. And we live in a big and secure child-free apartment building, so I'll be spared the pain of having to give perfectly good mini Snickers bars to complete strangers. But what can I do, then, to properly mark the holiday?
Get her wasted on pumpkin beer, of course! She's been swilling her way through the zillions of boutique pumpkin bottlings all fall, but she respects the work we do here on the Bottom Shelf and knows that for our professional purposes we could only consider reasonably priced, nationally available brews. The four contenders for the honor of Official Beverage of the Apartment 604 Two-Person Halloween Pumptacular are summarized below.
Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale ($9.99 for a 6-pack in my expensive neighborhood): Emily thought this was bitter and lacked pumpkin character, and she said the spice tasted "rough." I liked the floral real-beer hop nose, but I agree that it was pretty bitter for a pumpkin beer, and I also found it a bit metallic. I ranked it second in show, but Em put it last, so it's dead to us.
Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale ($8.99 for 6): Emily says, "It doesn't taste like much other than decent beer. No pumpkin, not enough spice." I concur. The label promises clove, nutmeg, and allspice, but all I noticed was a faint muddle of generic warm spice mix. Where you rank this depends on where you rank mass-produced wheat beer. Middle of the pack in our house.
Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale (Michelob) ($7.99 for 6): Emily was okay with this one because of its strong pumpkin smell. I thought it was a little bit candied, and the caramel malt they tout on the label is plenty obvious. So if that's your thing, this honest effort can be your beer.
Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat (Anheuser-Busch) ($7.99 for 6) Well, I'll be damned. The Bud Pumpkin Wheat was the clear winner! Emily liked the pronounced cinnamon and pumpkin and proclaimed it the best compromise between the two basic styles of pumpkin beer: pumpkiny and spicy. I though it was balanced and pretty, with the right amount of clove. I've always avoided Shocktop because, give me a break, look at the label! An orange slice with sunglasses and a wheat chaff mohawk? But it looks like I'll be stocking up for the holidays. Spooky indeed.