Pumpkin ales have always perplexed me. Not because they’re an inferior type of beer, but because they seem to only exist as a novelty. Although pumpkin ale is, according to the Samuel Adams website, “one of the oldest beer styles,” like pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, they’re only there to fill a seasonal niche. (They’re totally ignored for the rest of the year.)
But if that were the only reason for pumpkin ale’s existence, why would mid-size and small craft breweries—who make up only a tiny share of the market—bother to get involved?
BeerAdvocate.com’s list of top pumpkin ales is headed by Southern Tier’s Dogfish Head, Weyerbacher, and Smuttynose—small but oft-celebrated breweries.
Perhaps it’s their way of saying, “Fuck it, if people want this pumpkin shit, we’ll make it the right way.” The major breweries that create lesser pumpkin ales don’t necessarily have to bother making it the right way, because they know somebody will buy it regardless. (Or maybe they’re trying, and just screwing it up royally.)
To prove the point, my beer-obsessed roommates and I sampled three pumpkin ales. Here’s what we found:
Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale: The smells of pumpkin and harvest spices (nutmeg, allspice, etc.) don’t destroy your nasal passages the way inferior beers do. The pumpkin taste comes at the finish rather than the start. Overall, it tastes earthy but not bitter. It’s highly recommended, either paired with a big meal or as a dessert beer.
Saranac Pumpkin Ale: The smells are right up front and overpowering, like someone yelling, “THIS IS PUMPKIN, DAMNIT!” Same goes for the taste. It’s sweet—not way too sweet—but enough that you’d want it toned down a bit (perhaps due to its use of “natural flavors”—a suspicious claim when applied to beer). The finish is oddly bitter, transitioning clumsily from the sweetness. It’s drinkable and maybe even mildly enjoyable but I still wouldn’t recommend it.
Southern Tier Pumking Ale: This one gets first place on BeerAdvocate’s list for a reason. The scent and taste aren’t subtle—a pumpkin explosion—but they are of such quality they’re not overpowering. A rich vanilla flavor complements the pumpkin, and hints of clove and allspice round out its sweet, lingering finish. (It’s also 9% alcohol by volume, so don’t ruin your experience by chugging. The two aforementioned beers are in the 5% range.) This would make an excellent dessert beer any time of year.
If you’re willing to try a gourd-flavored brew, give these a try: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Post Road Pumpkin Ale, and Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale.
Avoid Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead and Kennebunkport’s Pumpkin Ale—they’re terrible.