By Chris Maza
The air has gotten crisper in the past few days, most notably in the nighttime hours and the shelves are stocked with pumpkin beers. Fall is certainly upon us.
I have to admit that I was one of the detractors early on when it came to pumpkin-flavored beer. Maybe a little bit of it was the fact that my palate was not yet ready for it, but I also feel that like a lot of craft brews in America, the style needed some perfecting.
Well, now I'm a believer and I look forward to fall not only for the corn mazes, apple picking, multicolored foliage-filled hikes and my wife's hilarious stories of her brand new, ever-so-young kindergarten class, but also for this style of beer, whose popularity appears to have hit an all-time high.
Over the past few weeks, I've taken the time to sample some of this year's batches and wanted to share my findings with you.
Among so-called beer aficionados, I am in the minority, but for me, Pumpkinhead is the gold standard for pumpkin-style beers. When drinking a beer, whether it be a standard lager or a fruity ale, I ultimately want it to taste like beer first and whatever else second. Shipyard has pulled this off brilliantly with Pumpkinhead. Lighter in color and body than a lot of others in the style, it's an easy drinker with hints of real pumpkin and spice without it being totally overpowering. The beer finishes smooth and crisp.
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
A little more aggressive is Shipyard's Smashed Pumpkin, which comes in a 22-ounce bottle and is part of the company's impressive Pugsley's Signature Series.
This beer pours a deep orange color and the nose emits a strong cinnamon and pumpkin profile. The taste follows suit, with very strong cinnamon notes up front, followed by the pumpkin, much more prominent than in the Pumpkinhead.
The beer is 9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and that fact is evident in the strong alcohol taste that the beer finishes with, which isn't masked very well and knocks the beer down a peg for me. It is still a commendable offering, however.
Sam Adams Fat Jack
Part of the Samuel Adams Small Batch series, Fat Jack is labeled a double pumpkin ale. It pours a deep amber color and smells of sugars and spices as well as alcohol. While it does have a complex taste, pumpkin is not the primary one. Lots of malts and some spices dominate, while pumpkin simply lingers in the background. While a good beer, it certainly doesn't fit its own billing as a double pumpkin ale and like the Smashed Pumpkin, its rough alcohol finish leads to some disappointment.
Wachusett Imperial Pumpkin Ale
I've taken a more active interest in Wachusett since taking part in one of their brewery tours this summer, so this was one I had to give a shot. Pouring a deep orange, almost copper, it is very attractive and the pumpkin and candied sugars boasted on the label are prominent in the nose. Much like its aroma, the sugars offer a sweet bite to this one as the pumpkin, nutmeg and vanilla tones balance well in the background. It finishes crisp and sugary making it somewhat unique compared to the others I've had this year. Solid all around.
Southern Tier Pumking
Last year when I tried the Pumking I found it to be just too much for my taste it was more like drinking liquid pumpkin pie than a beer, but at the insistence of a friend, I gave this year's batch a go. While hardcore pumpkin lovers may be a little disappointed, Southern Tier took their foot off the gas in terms of the amounts of pumpkin and spice flavoring this year, making for a much more drinkable beer.
That's not to say it is at all lacking in those areas with vanilla and cinnamon very evident along with the pumpkin and has a bit heavier mouth feel, which is just fine for cooler weather drinking. Also, despite the 8.6 percent ABV, this one doesn't have the biting alcohol finish.