One of the odd things about pumpkin beers, aside from the fact that they seem to turn up on shelves a week earlier every year, is the fact that there isn’t really any consensus about what constitutes a pumpkin beer. Some of them contain pumpkin and some of them don’t. They all contain different blends of spices that emulate pumpkin pie in one way or another, and that blend is very much a question of personal taste.
It’s therefore one of the rare styles of beer where critical opinion doesn’t count for a whole lot. Since everyone has a different opinion of what a pumpkin pie should taste like, and of what exactly makes a pumpkin beer a pumpkin beer, the best I can do for you is to point out what the strengths and weaknesses are of the different beers available.
One of the best values is Brooklyn’s Post Road Pumpkin Ale. Of the pumpkin beers that I’ve tried this year, it’s the only one to really feature the flavour of the squash up front, bringing with it a certain amount of toasty malt flavour. If you’re a purist, then this is going to be the beer for you. Another nice feature is the fact that it is relatively low in alcohol at 5%, bucking a trend to go after the high sugar flavour approach. There’s tasteful restraint here.
In terms of replicating the flavour of pumpkin pie rather than featuring the flavour of the main ingredient, there are a couple of good options. Perenially, McAuslan’s St-Ambroise Pumpkin Ale is a favourite because it aims straight down the middle, providing a good balance of pie spice and pumpkin flavour. It’s complex without being overwhelming.
A more boisterous rendition is offered by New Zealand’s Renaissance Brewery. Their Enlightenment Pumpkin is slightly higher in alcohol at 7.2%, pouring an auburn with a beige head. It has a sprightly carbonation that really emphasizes the spice notes. Both of these are good introductions to the category.
It’s worth noting that some pumpkin beers will vary each year. Take Southern Tier’s Pumking, for instance. Last year’s batch, in my opinion, missed the mark. The beer tries to create notes that leave the impression of all the details of eating a pumpkin pie. Yes, there’s pumpkin and spice, but when Pumking is on form its smooth texture creates the impression of whipped cream and there’s a graham cracker malt character that you could swear is a crumbling crust.
I am pleased to report that this year, Pumking is as good as it has ever been, adding a new weapon to its arsenal: A distinct note of roasted pumpkin seed. The only difficulty is that at 8.8%, you’re going to need someone to split the 650ml bottle with.
Jordan St.John writes about beer at saintjohnswort.ca. He believes in the Great Pumpkin.