The pumpkin beer has had a popularity trajectory similar to that of a boy band. Once heralded, now oft maligned, the style has taken a smashing mostly thanks to a slew of subpar options that saturated the market after the success of a solid few.
It's become a difficult task to separate the prize pumpkin beers from the rest of the patch, but we've chosen a few that we think are definitely worth seeking out this fall.
Evolution Brewing Jacques Au Lantern
Maryland based Evolution Craft Brewing Company's Kathleen DeBisschop told us a bit about their brewing method for this twist on a classic pumpkin offering: "We add locally grown roasted pumpkin to the mash and traditional pumpkin pie spices to the kettle, and then it is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain."
That Belgian yeast profile is certainly a defining characteristic of this particular pumpkin beer and it makes for an interesting aroma. The spices common to the style are present, but they're deepened by the spices and fruity esters inherent to that Belgian yeast. Flavor-wise, cinnamon is front and center while the supporting nutmeg and allspice work together with an earthy malt character. The sampling made me lament a lack of warm apple strudel on hand, but I won't make that mistake again. Overall, Jacques is a well-balanced option for your pumpkin picking.
Two Roads Roadsmary's Baby
What happens if you age your pumpkin ale in rum barrels? Very good things. Two Roads Brewing Company is based in Stratford, CT, and their pumpkin beer, aged in barrels that were used to age rum, is delightfully rich. This sturdy beer taste like it has ribbons of vanilla running through the classic autumn spices. The rum itself is not clearly pronounced, and instead the barrel lends more complexity than actual rum flavor. Spices are intensified, and malt character deepened by the aging process. It's a full-bodied and flavorful fall seasonal.
If you save an extra bottle or two for November, this pumpkin ale would pair well not only with the standard canon of Thanksgiving desserts, but also with the main course of roasted, caramelized turkey and rich sausage dressing.
Samuel Adams Fat Jack
The New England based brewery purports that pumpkin beer is part of their heritage, following the gourd-based ale's roots in the colonial era, when brewers at home "replaced traditional, but scarce malts with locally grown pumpkins." (If you're curious about pumpkin beer's history, here's a good place to start.) Given the longtime local tradition, the bar's set high, and Samuel Adams delivers a robust entry to the pumpkin category.
Perhaps they call him fat because he's brewed with more than 28 pounds of pumpkin per barrel. Boston Beer Company's elder brother pumpkin, Fat Jack, outweighs its sibling, Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin, and clocks 8.5% ABV.
This is a particularly dark example of the pumpkin style, with a clear smoky malt character that brings to mind early autumn bonfires. There are also some dark fruits present, raisins and dried cranberries among them, all adding to the well-established fall flavor profile. Fat Jack would be a knockout with a dense freshly baked pumpkin cranberry bread or muffin, while the smokiness also invites a pairing with one of the many maple bacon confections floating around these days.
New Belgium Pumpkick
Colorado's New Belgium Brewing took significant liberties with the pumpkin ale, adding lemongrass and cranberry juice for this unusual concoction.
The personified pumpkin on the bottle appears just as shocked as I am to learn of these ingredients, but the brewery's Lauren Salazar explains: "There's no denying that pumpkins are the signature harvest of fall And while a pumpkin beer is a no-brainer, we took a challenge to make a pumpkin beer unlike any other. Our brewers started with traditionally used spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, but then kicked in the Belgian imagination. That came in the form of cranberries and a touch of lemongrass that gives it a tart, not sweet finish."
A spicy Belgian aroma comes through immediately and fills the air with the aforementioned pumpkin pie spice profile. On the palate, Pumpkick is lighter and more spry than some of the other examples here. The lemongrass is difficult to pick out among the many flavors, but the cranberry juice offers a bright and welcome tartness. Pumpkick finishes dry and clean, lacking the cloying character that many over-sugared pumpkin beers often have.
It is a fun and innovative twist on the pumpkin style, but Pumpkick will probably not sate those in search of a nostalgic squash-based beverage. But you should still try it for kicks!
Cigar City Good Gourd
Wayne Wambles, Cigar City's Brewmaster, has been brewing some variation of this beer since the early days of his career. "I started brewing a smaller version during my first year of home brewing," recalls Wambles. "During the late nineties, I started changing some of the processes. I would add spices at different times to see how it impacted the beer." After more than a decade of revisions, Cigar City settled on their ideal version in 2011 and that is the Good Gourd that we're enjoying today.
It's brewed with Ceylon cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg in addition to the pumpkin itself. Each spice is immediately apparent with one good whiff. The deep coppery colored ale presents caramel and vanilla flavors that resemble a heap of whipped cream atop your pumpkin pie. The stronger alcohol presence—this beer has a hefty 8.5% ABV—may as well be a warm hug; this beer is the equivalent of comfort food on a cold autumn day.
Sip the Good Gourd after dinner and you won't crave any other dessert; the flavors are intense and well integrated, and it will make you remember why you loved the pumpkin ales of yore.
About the Author: Stef Ferrari is a Brooklyn-based Certified Cicerone, food writer/photographer, and author of a forthcoming beer industry guidebook with Wiley & Sons Publishing. Find her on the web and on Twitter at @stef_ferrari.