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Rick Franckhauser's picture

Top 10 Pumpkin Beers (Issue 32)

Though pumpkin beers are common, finely brewed examples are somewhat rare.

We all know the story. The Pilgrims were floating about looking for some new digs when they ran out of beer. So, they pulled the Mayflower over, landed in the U.S. and began searching for stuff they could brew with. They stumbled over some pumpkins, gave thanks and voila! The Pumpkin beer craze was born. The beer became so popular that brewers started making it available to the natives around August. Well, maybe you heard a slightly different version of the story but for craft beer lovers Pumpkin beers are the first sign of the coming Fall season. And like Christmas in July, if you buy it in August they will brew it.

This past summer I came across several articles announcing the demise of Pumpkin beers. It seems that many breweries are just so busy producing one of their 12 variations of IPA that they just don’t have time for pumpkins. Then August rolled around, I walk into my local bottle shop and lo and behold, no less than six different Pumpkin beers are on the shelves and as the weeks go by more and more variations appear. I suppose the accounts of pumpkin's demise were greatly exaggerated. Many beer styles have long been associated with the changing seasons but none so closely as Pumpkin beers to Fall. It’s only natural that as the air gets cooler we begin to crave heartier fare and fuller bodied beers. While the leaves transform into shades of amber, red and brown so goes the hue of our beers.

Pumpkin beers often get a bad rap due at least in part to the difficulty of brewing a splendid example. All too many are one dimensional clove bombs. The best examples however will walk a tight balance between complex spice blends of clove, cinnamon, maybe a little ginger, cardamom or perhaps white pepper and a little vanilla is always nice. In harmony with the spice I want to taste the pumpkin squash. If that is not demanding enough the base beer style needs to be identifiable as a good example on its own merits. I tend to like some caramel malt character if it is not overly sweet. Some base styles work better than others. Personally, I find that lots of roasted malts or big citrusy hops tend to clash with the spices and result in a rather harsh beer. However, when all the elements are aligned Pumpkin beers can be sublime.

Pumpkin beers often get a bad rap due at least in part to the difficulty of brewing a splendid example. However, when all the elements are aligned Pumpkin beers can be sublime.

Now it’s time for the obligatory “Top Ten” list. Let’s be honest, there is no such thing as “The Best…. Beer”. Any top ten, twenty or top one-thousand list of beers will always represent personal palate preference. No matter how educated we believe your palate is or what exacting measures we employ to objectively evaluate beer, psychological bias and a thousand other variables will be at play in our evaluation. I’ve outlined what I look for in a great pumpkin beer, but even if you agree with my method you are likely to draw different conclusions as to what is best. That’s okay.

The following are my top ten recommendations to lovers of Pumpkin beers. Obviously, I have not tried every Pumpkin beer that is available out there, but I have tried every example I’ve found. These are my personal favorites. I then ranked them by asking myself, “If all ten of these were available on tap but I could only choose one” and then “if that one had just run out, what would my next choice would be?"

10. Pumpkinhead (Shipyard)

This one is highly quaffable. Its golden color makes it one of the lighter pumpkin beers you are likely to find but tasty none the less. The pumpkin squash is more dominant than the spice and is joined by earthy and floral hops. Some toasty and soft wheat malt rounds it all out. Nothing is overdone and all is in harmony. Very approachable and maybe the perfect intro to Pumpkin beers for those new to craft beers.

9. Ichabod (New Holland)

Imagine a classic American Pale Ale, not the kind with an inferiority complex trying to be an IPA, but one with smooth sweet malt balanced by grapefruit and floral hops. Now combine just enough cinnamon and cloves to assist in balancing the sweetness and a slight earthy pumpkin squash to round it all out. Ichabod is perhaps the most pound-able pumpkin ale you can find.   

8. Pumpkin Batch (Sam Adams)

Pumpkin Saison seems like a natural combination to me. The Belgian yeast character with white pepper phenolics blend with mace, nutmeg and cinnamon spices. After you work your way through the spice, some herbal and woody hop aromas emerge, though no esters or malt are present. The flavor is loaded with pumpkin pie spices but the woody, earthy hops, a slight malt character and a touch of pumpkin squash aid complexity. Effervescent with a dry finish as every good Saison should be.

7. Punkin (Dogfish Head)

The spice is well balanced with no one spice note taking center stage. Pumpkin is noted in the aroma with an underlying caramel malt tone. The brown ale base beer seems to be of the English variety but lacks some of the darker malt character expected in the flavor. However, the brown sugar aspect helps add some richness. The spice blend is just as perfectly woven into the flavor as in the aroma and intermingles with the pumpkin. It finishes with a slight alcohol and residual caramel malt sweetness.  

6. Pumking (Southern Tier)

Sweet malt, spices, vanilla and alcohol aromatics. The pumpkin appears in the flavor and is surrounded by sweet caramel malts and accentuated by the alcohol. The spice is present but is a subtle integration of cloves and cinnamon. The vanilla and alcohol are reminiscent of fine oak-aged ale. It finishes with an impression of Belgian candi sugar. You will want to sip this one at cellar temperature.  

5. Funkier Pumpkin (Boulevard Brewing)

An appreciation for Brettanomyces is essential to go for this Pumpkin Ale. Brett is up front and personal in both aroma and flavor. All the barnyard you want with other earthy notes are in the aroma. Pumpkin beer fans, never fear, cloves, cinnamon and a touch of ginger are here. The Brett dominates the flavor but is joined by a slight touch of caramel. Ginger, cloves and cinnamon come through mid-palate and linger into the dry finish. The spice blends perfectly into this well-crafted beer. The only down side is the pumpkin squash flavor has melded to the whole and is unidentifiable.

4. Pumpkin Down (Ballast Point)

Dark caramel malts with an ever so faint touch of roast. Cinnamon and clove with vanilla aromatics complement the malts. The flavor gives up more of the dark caramel and deep toasted malts. Just enough bitterness to balance the sweetness. Very pleasant spice blend is so well integrated you almost forget it’s a pumpkin ale until the squash appears at the very end and lingers gently into the aftertaste. The Scottish ale base works perfectly as a platform for the pumpkin and spice.

3. Funky Pumpkin (Boulevard Brewing)

Less funky but more pumpkin than its funkier brother. Definitely not your typical Pumpkin beer. The spice in this beer comes across a little more like phenols from the fermentation rather than spice additions, and for me, that is part of what makes it great. The Brettanomyces is not overly funky, and is quickly followed by cinnamon, allspice and a touch of ginger. The spice then melds with some lemon and orange zest tartness. A slight woody character and some toasty malt in the aroma. The flavor starts out sour and citrusy but the spice elements join in with the toasty malt to round it out. The sourness dominates, but is not overpowering, and everything else is in perfect balance. The spice notes make a quick appearance with each sip.

2. Spooky Tooth Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Fat Heads)

This is the Fall season in a glass. Rich malts and the impression of brown sugar and kettle caramelization. The alcohol is present and pleasant. The spices are pronounced but soft with an intriguing complexity. The flavor does not fall short of what the aroma promises. It has all the malt lusciousness you would find in a classic Wee Heavy with additional complexity provided by the spice additions. The alcohol wraps you up like a warm blanket. The pumpkin finally makes its way through in the finish and just adds another level of interest.

1. Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Weyerbacher)

This is liquid comfort food. A deep, rich spice blend of cardamom and clove integrates seamlessly with the dark crystal malt and squash. There is a slight impression of bitter chocolate as it warms. The flavor presents similar components found in the aroma with the addition of cinnamon and a dose of pumpkin. Rounded bitterness leaves an ever so slight balance toward the malt without becoming sweet. Date and raisin esters make an appearance in the finish along with a nice warming from the alcohol. Approaching an English Barleywine in its complexity and lusciousness. This is Pumpkin beer at its finest.

(Photos courtesy of respective breweries)


obxer's picture
Dogfish Head does not make "Pumpkin." They make Punkin Ale.
obxer's picture
And these are basically all from larger craft brewers with mostly nationwide distribution - missing a LOT of good/best pumpkin ales/beers from all small craft breweries all over the country. Just one example, among so many others (simply because I had it this week), is the Pumpkin Ale from AleWerks Brewing Company in Williamsburg, Va., which rivals many on your list.
Jim Dykstra's picture
Obxer -- You are correct. It is indeed Punkin by Dogfish Head. As for the selection, this is a subjective list based on Mr. Franckhauser's experiences. The fact that there are so many awesome examples of the style is a testament to how great craft beer is in general. Hopefully these can serve as a gateway to many other smaller brews, including Alewerks' example. Thanks for reading! - BC
gmuhlbauer80's picture
The fact that Cigar City's Good Gourd isn't featured here is absolutely ridiculous. But I'm so glad two garbage sour beers took up two slots.
DrGMG's picture
My 2 favorites so far are Southern Tier coffee pumpkin and Cigar City Good Gourd. Both are excellent.

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