Sep 15, 2012

It's The Great Pumpkin Debate, Charlie Brown!

No.  Not THAT debate.  Is July/August too early to brew, release, buy and drink pumpkin beer?  I don't know and I'm not sure I care.  Nor do I plan to debate that here.  What we WILL do here is taste a few pumpkin beers.  Ok...more than a few, and give you our thoughts on some of the more commonly found of these seasonal beers found on shelves today.

My good friend Rob (you can call him "Bear") from K.O. Picture Show and I thought it was high time that these tasty (and some not so much) beers get put through their paces and into our mouths.  Due to the sheer volume of pumpkin beer now being produced I decided to break this up into a few different posts. This first post is Rob's take on this first round. Next week, when I make the time to do it, I'll post my feelings on the same 14 beers.

Ultimately we will try more than 25 different brews.  For this first round we sampled 14 different pumpkin beers in a single sitting.  Don't try this at home.  We're professionals.  Closer to Halloween we'll sample the remaining beers, because...well, somebody's got to do it.  All sampling was done blindly 2oz. at a time.  We were given a numbered, clean, unmarked sampling glass and got to work, doing what we do best.  We drank beer.

So without further ado, I give you Rob's thoughts on round 1 of "The Great Pumpkin Debate"! Enjoy responsibly.

Pumpkins

Let me begin by saying that I am not your typical “beer guy”. And let me amend that by saying physically… I am your typical “beer guy”, in that I have a beer gut. But in terms of taste, I have to say that many (if not MOST) beers don’t appeal to me. I’ve never been a fan of hops, which clears out a huge swath of beer selection (so long all you IPA’s! May your endless hop-based beer name puns continue to hoppertunistically prey on all those hopheads’ hopes and dreams…). I tend to skew towards the maltier, sweeter side of things. Belgians and strong ales. Stuff with higher alcohol content. Hell, you can even get me to try a sour or a lambic on occasion. But over the years, I’ve come to find that my favorite beers, the ones I search out most in the store, are flavored beers. I love when a brewer can find a distinct non-alcohol flavor (like, for instance, pumpkins ) and meld it with their combination of malt, yeast, and, yes, even hops to create something wholly unique, alcoholic, and ingestible.

Zr

 

And that brings us to the today’s task: tasting and ranking pumpkin beers. I’m always a bit reticent to start ranking anything according to taste, as taste is such a subjective thing. One man’s blood sausage is another man’s…<herp!>...<gag!>… just a second… I can’t stop thinking about blood sausage… okay… I’m okay… gulp… I’m alright….

At any rate, with the subjectivity that taste brings, I’d like to set a very specific parameter for the taste that I look for in a pumpkin beer: pumpkin pie. And, honestly, I’m not sure what the heck others could be looking for in a pumpkin beer. Are there people out there just cutting the tops off of pumpkins, grabbing a spoon, and hunkering down for a meal of stringy pumpkin guts and seeds? If so, remind me not to have you over this Halloween. But to return to the point, when someone says “pumpkin flavor” to me, I think of the sweet, meaty taste of pumpkin pie along with the traditional pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, maybe a bit of cloves, and the omnipresent, all encompassing, mysterious ‘allspice’…). So keep in mind that when I tasted the 14 pumpkin beers in our first (but mind you, not last!) tasting, I’m a guy who was looking for pumpkin pie flavor up front who also happens to prefer the sweeter side of things when it comes to beer as a whole. With that said, here’s how we ran this circus:

Three flights of beers (5 beers in the first two flights, 4 in the last flight, for a total of 14 beers), all tasted blindly, noted, and then tasted again to help round out and rank the good, the bad, and the just plain ol’ nasty. In order of worst to best, here’s my rankings and notes:

The worst of the lot…

Fegley’s Brew Works Devious Imperial Pumpkin –VERY distinct flavor, just not pumpkin, in any way, shape, or form. A strong taste of figs, heavy alcohol (which usually I don’t mind, but not so much here), a very dark color, and a lot of pinched faces and squinting afterwards. I’m sorry to say, a complete misfire for me.

Cisco Pumple Drumpkin – An amber color and good sniff potential gave way to a distinctly bitter (not hoppy, but bitter) taste and almost no pumpkin taste. I’m a sucker for the bottle art and cute name, but the pumpkin seemed like an afterthought on this one.

Post Road Pumpkin Ale by Brooklyn Brewery – Many of the same criticisms that I had for the Cisco Pumple Drumpkin beer. Bitter, light in color and in pumpkin flavor. I’ve been a champion of Brooklyn’s other flavored offerings (I can remember being one of the few who’ve gone back for seconds on their “The Concoction” when it’s been available at my favorite craft beer bar), but no such luck with their pumpkin offering.

Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin – I had heard a lot of hype about this one at my local beer store, and I even gave it a second chance at this tasting (having had it at my leisure earlier in the week). At the very least I can say it was instantly recognizable, even in a blind taste test. Just not for any good reasons. A reddish hue and a healthy aroma give way to high alcohol (again, normally something I kind of like, but not in this case), slight bitterness, and straight up smoke. They describe it as “an undercurrent of roasty smoked malts” (and I’m calling shenanigans on the word “roasty”), but there was nothing under about it. Smokey and roasty all out front, very little pumpkin.

Not bad, just not pumpkin-y enough…

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale – I know, I know! Stone the heathen! What can I say? Even as someone who truly appreciates what Dogfish Head has done in the name of flavored, dare I say, off-centered (eh? Right?!) beers, this one didn’t thrill me. A lot of what I’m going to say is clover up front (but correct me if I’m wrong), the wrong side of hoppy bitterness for my taste, and not nearly enough pumpkin in this very light colored offering. I’m still a fan, just not of Punkin.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale – By far the hoppiest, IPA-like of the bunch. And if you like that sort of thing, this might be the pumpkin beer for you. Just not for me. Light in color with some good pie spice on the finish. Just too much hop pucker up front for me to partake in regularly.

River Horse Hipp-o-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale – I’ve had this one a couple of times and I wasn’t able to draw a bead on it until this blind taste test. In my flavored beer searches, I’ve had many beers suggested to me, many by my fellow taste tester, Zach. He directed me towards one of 21st Amendment Brewing’s offerings more than once (I’m a steadfast fan of their Hell or High Watermelon). This one from River Horse most reminded of 21st’s Allies Win the War, a California date-flavored strong ale. It didn’t really ring my bell then, and it certainly didn’t get it done when it was supposed to be part of a pumpkin beer tasting. So, in a word, dates. Not pumpkin.

Creeping around the top spots, but not getting there…

Saranac Pumpkin Ale – A faint whiff of pie spices upfront, but not enough on the finish. A very nicely

balanced beer in terms of hops and malt, but not enough pumpkin oomph to make this amiable amber-tinted beer a favorite.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale – “Dirty Pool!” you yell! How did this mass-produced stuff get into this craft beer tasting? Well, you have to be inclusive in these types of endeavors, and the bottom line is they’ve made a balanced, brown ale-like beer with some good pumpkin flavor up front. Very drinkable and, dammit, I liked it!

Terrapin Pumpkinfest – Rose in color, a nice balance between spice and alcohol (6.1% ABV, which, in truth, is on the low side for many of the pumpkin beers we tried in this tasting), and the pumpkin shows up more in the finish, rather than all upfront like so many of the lesser performers in this taste test. A fine effort, just outside of the best in my opinion.

Robbeers

The best of ‘em…

Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale – Sometime the masses are right! I’ve heard plenty about this beer’s popularity in the past, but I’d never tried it. It’s extremely light coloring (lightest by far in this taste test filled with ambers and reddish hues) is betraying a depth of pumpkin pie taste that the others hadn’t accomplished to this point. Good malt/hops balance. And at 5.1% ABV, maybe the most sessionable of the pumpkin beers I tasted. Excellent!

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale – THIS is how pumpkin pie and up-front alcohol flavor should be handled, folks! Immediately distinguishable from the others in the taste test (and, after the unblinding, I’m glad to see a significant upgrade to their bottle art this year). A dark, amber winner!

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale – Another high-touted pick that lived up to the hype. Plenty of pumpkin pie flavor throughout that warmed up as you sipped. I, like most others, wish this one was easier to find. Luckily Zach is a beer hawk and was able to swoop in and get some of this for the tasting here in New Jersey. Everything that I look for in a pumpkin beer. But not the best. The best of the best is….

Southern Tier Pumking – The first pumpkin beer I ever tried, and even in a blind taste test, I could pick it out in a crowd. Call me nuts, but along with the pumpkin pie I could even detect a hint of whipped cream. Meaty, sweet, warming, and endlessly sippable. It might sound like hyperbole, but there’s nothing else out there quite like it. It was and is my favorite.

 

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