I once heard a prominent American craft brewer compare brewing the best pumpkin beer to “being the smartest idiot in the room.” Alright, he might have used a more offensive term than “idiot,” but you get the sentiment–serious beer nerds aren’t exactly stoked on pumpkin ales. Which is why it came as no surprise to me that when I set out to survey a handful of industry folks, my queries were, on the whole, met with less than enthusiastic answers.
“I don’t like any pumpkin anything,” admitted Double Windsor bartender Khara Gilvey. “You should make a Jolly Pumpkin joke. That’s literally all that I have to offer.”
“Seeing that I don’t like pumpkin beers, I’ll think about this all week,” wrote Covenhoven’s James Case, with absolutely no intention of following up.
Are these comments valid, fair? Sure. I get, and often share, their disdain. Pumpkin beers get a bad rap. They’re seen as cheaply produced, cloyingly sweet attention-grubbers, the veritable “basic bitches” of the beer world, riding the coattails of the all-pumpkin-spice-everything trend and distracting craft beer drinkers from the diverse array of traditional autumnal styles.
As Sixpoint’s Mikey Lanane sees it, the only positive when it comes to pumpkin beers is that they’re slowly becoming less, well, pumpkiny.
“I really don’t drink any pumpkin beer at all anymore,” he told me. “My only comment of any worth, is that I’m noticing a trend away from ‘pumpkin ale’ as its own little style, into all sorts of different riffs on other styles that incorporate the flavor profile. To me, that’s going to be one of the best ways for these beers to stay relevant.”
While Lanane brought up some interesting points about the style’s staying power, he’s didn’t exactly offer up the kind of expert seasonally-inspired imbibing advice I was after. And, regardless of naysayers, I can guarantee these spicy sippers will be hitting the shelves in full force soon. So which ones are worth your time? A few of New York craft beer’s best and brightest did begrudgingly come to my aide, volunteering their top pumpkin picks to help all you thirsty readers sort through fall’s nutmeggy mess.
The Complete Beer Course author Joshua M. Bernstein
“I’m psyched to try Boulevard Brewing’s Funky Pumpkin. The merger of sour beer and Brettanomyces-spiked beer is spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and all you’d expect. It neatly subverts the standard fall script.”
ABC Beer Co.’s Zach Mack
“I just tried Laurelwood Stingy Jack for the first time and I was very impressed! I feel like this one toes the line of subtle pumpkin spice use, with lots of vanilla and chocolate coming through before a hint of a nutmeg kick at the finish. I would like to think this has more to do with Oregon being a state where it feels like fall year round and they don’t have to overcompensate by making their pumpkin beers taste like a fall scented Yankee Candle. But I dig that they’re using 200 lbs of pumpkin (plus 40 pounds of puree) in each batch, which gives it that dank, vegetal, vaguely sweet autumn kick that you just can’t accomplish with spice alone.
“Simply put, Greenport Harbor Leaf Pile is the most refreshing break from dessert-intensity pumpkin beers that I get excited when I see the first kegs rolling out of the brewery. This beer resides more on the vegetal side of the pumpkin, with the spices taking a back seat to the medium bodied goodness. I hate to be the guy to make statements like this, but this is the beer equivalent of a gust of wind that hits you in the face as you’re taking a hayride in October (or doing something equally cliche and fall).”
Bitter & Esters’ John La Polla
“I haven’t had any Pumpkin ales yet this season, but last year I remember really enjoying Kelso’s Industrial Pumpkin Ale. Not sure if they made it again this year.
“Of course, I love homebrew, and we have a killer imperial pumpkin ale recipe called King Pumpkin. It’s an 8% alcohol amber, slightly spiced brewed with actual pumpkin. It’s smooth but packs a kick, it really is one of my favorite pumpkin ales if I do say so myself.”
Glorietta Baldy’s Ben Wiley
“Southern Tier Warlock. Boring? Maybe. But if you’re going to go pumpkin, go big. Otherwise, step one in drinking a pumpkin beer is throw it in the garbage.”
Brew To Share’s Robert Sherrill
“Available in cans, the Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout from Cape Ann Brewing is fantastic. Chocolate notes with essence of pumpkin spice character. Ends dry with an overall medium-full mouthfeel. It’s the kind of beer I would want to take out and share on the last great day of fall while camping with my closest friends.”
BeerUnion’s Sarah Annese
“I don’t normally gravitate toward pumpkin beers, and when I do have some, it’s usually not a full pint. They’re too sweet for my liking. That being said, I have a soft spot for Brooklyn’s Post Road Pumpkin Ale. I was just getting into beer the first time I had it, and split it with a friend. She commented, ‘It tastes just like pumpkin pie.’ I agreed. Haven’t had it in years though, but maybe this fall I’ll try it again!”
Beerded Ladies’ Hayley Karl
“Pumking!!!!!! Okay!! There, I admit it! If you’re going to have vegetables in your beer, you might as well go all the way. That’s what Southern Tier’s Pumking does–it gives you a delicious dessert beer that is better than pumpkin pie.”
Radiant Pig’s Laurisa Milici & Rob Pihl
“An oldie, but a goodie: the pumpkin beer both Rob and I most look forward to every year is Dogfish Head’s Punkin. We really like that the pumpkin flavor doesn’t completely dominate the beer–it just adds to it, making it more like drinking an amber ale with fall spices than a pumpkin with a straw in it.”
Finback’s Basil Lee
“By sheer variety and dedication to the craze, Elysian is a standout. But Barrier’s Saazsquash is a great local ‘pumpkin’ beer. It’s brewed with squash, ginger and honey with very low spicing.
“We will be releasing a fall beer in a couple weeks that was brewed with pumpkin, but the pumpkin is more a background note and not the focus. It’s called Dark Entity, a Porter brewed with coffee, pumpkin and spices.”