The wave of beer industry consolidation that culminated with Budweiser turning Belgian in 2008 has made Samuel Adams the largest American-owned brewery. Boston's original craft beer maker has expanded to such an extent that I recently drank my breakfast at a Sam Adams brewpub in the Baltimore airport, and I could have done so at several other airports around the country.
Now that Samuel Adams is America's brewery, Harpoon has slid comfortably into place as Boston's brewery, hosting several annual blowouts at its Southie facility and sponsoring just about every road race, danceathon, and pie-eating contest in town.
Harpoon's flagship IPA remains the company's bread and butter, but they've been expanding the product line in the face of increased competition for the hop-head market. Rather than getting caught up in the gravity wars, Harpoon has kept its IPA unchanged since its 1993 debut—at 5.9% ABV and 42 IBUs, it seems almost quaint by today's standards—and has instead diversified its offerings, most notably with UFO Hefeweizen and a seasonal lineup.
In 2007, Harpoon began dabbling in cider, and this fall they've introduced a pumpkin variant. If you read enough food blogs, you might be convinced that pumpkin flavoring is totally played out, making Harpoon very late to a very lame party, but don't kid yourself. Harpoon knows that cider is sold to humans, not blogs, and humans love pumpkin-spiced things. Axe will make their next billion dollars on nutmeg body spray before anyone goes broke betting on pie drinks.
The primary challenge in turning a regular-flavored thing into a pumpkin-flavored thing is that pumpkins don't have a whole lot of flavor to begin with. A chunk of unadorned pumpkin doesn't make for a very interesting snack, so it stands to reason that if you're relying on it to fix up your cider, you need to start with decent apple juice. Once you've got a solid base, then the trick is to add enough real pumpkin to justify the label and then cheat your way to the top with a reasonable blend of sugars and spices that add autumnal dessert character without making a candy corny mockery of the situation.
Harpoon Pumpkin Cider, made with a blend of predominantly Macintosh and Empire apples from New England orchards, scores in the apple juice department. I find their regular cider to be a bit on the sweet side (as I do most ciders not specifically engineered for dryness) but for whatever reason the pumpkin number comes across as much tarter on the apple front. But solid cider can be undermined in a hurry by too heavy a hand with the enhancements, so Harpoon's real achievement here is getting the spice dosage right.
This cider lets the apples do most of the talking. It's identifiably pumpkin-spice-flavored—I'm not trying to pull one of those "This is great fish because it's not very fishy" moves on you here—but it's hard apple cider first and foremost. The fruit juice is complemented (rather than dominated) by the traditional pumpkin pie additives. The first non-apple flavor to hit my nose was clove, a welcome departure from the typical reliance on the sillier spices, but there's plenty of cinnamon on the back end, with lesser contributions from nutmeg and ginger. Harpoon respects the money-maker spices but doesn't lean too hard on the sweet stuff, and the result is an easy-drinking off-dry cider that comes with the sort of unintimidating statistics (4.8% ABV, 140 calories per bottle, $7.99 per 6-pack) that make it suitable for all your fall drinking needs.