Oh man was I looking forward to this one. I love Pumpkin Ales. Easily my favorite beer variety, and also proof that summer has died and is dead.
A little pumpkin ale rant
Some pumpkin ales intend to be all about pumpkin flavor. Others try to do a lot of things, while mixing in some pumpkin flavor. I appreciate both, but definitely prefer the former. I like pumpkin anything. Pumpkin bread, latte, etc. Wait all year for it. Never get sick of it.
But this is not everyone, as became clear when we tried to decide what varieties to test out. The internet frequently does not know what it’s talking about when it comes to pumpkin ales. I don’t know how many reviews I read that started with “I don’t really like pumpkin ales, but…” WHY ARE YOU REVIEWING PUMPKIN ALES ON THE INTERNET, person who does not like pumpkin ales?
The thing is, I understand that pumpkin ales are not for everybody. So maybe if I was someone who didn’t really love the pumpkin flavor, I would seek out the opinion of someone who felt the same. I guess? Wait, this is stupid, too. Why would I even drink them if I don’t like them? Maybe I want to learn to like them. Maybe I want to know what the fuss is about. Wouldn’t I want to read a review that started with “I don’t really like pumpkin ales, but…” and ended with “…and this was the pumpkin ale that changed everything.”
Well anyway, I am not that person. I am a person who is obsessed with pumpkin ales, and I want to know the pumpkiniest pumpkin ale available. I want reviews that start with “I’ve tried all kinds of pumpkin ales and actually, am a well-known pumpkin farmer and home brewer…” (and go on to say “and I have free pumpkin ale for you, Josh Wilson”).
After much debate and soul-searching:
- Southern Tier Pumking – The undisputed internet champion, though I’d never had it. We had a little trouble finding this one. It gets scooped up fast, where available. After striking out at one craft beer shop, we called another before heading home. They said they had just a few left. We went there directly and bought two.
- Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin (Pugsley’s Signature Series) – Another strongly-reviewed imperial pumpkin ale. The regular Shipyard variety didn’t have strong reviews, so we skipped it.
- Harvest Time – a local favorite from Big Boss. I considered this my favorite pumpkin ale going in. Very nice, crisp pumpkin flavor.
- Dogfish Head Punkin Ale – Very well-respected. Definitely in the category of “a whole bunch of flavors, and also pumpkin” though.
- Blue Moon Harvest Moon – Mixed reputation. I actually kinda like this one and was curious to see how it would stack up against the more crafty varieties.
- Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale – Another national brand. Hadn’t tried this one before. It came in a Sam Adams fall variety pack so we included it.
I felt pretty sure we could pick out the imperial varieties, based on the witbier test experience, and also because they had about twice the alcohol as the others. Most pumpkin ales are around 5%, and the imperials were 9-10%. The Dogfish Head could make things tricky though, sitting right in the middle around 7%.
Testing was performed by me and K, plus her brother and his girlfriend.
As a group we preferred the more pumpkin-focused entries, so no surprise, the consensus winner was indeed Pumking. It had a really wonderful intense pumpkin flavor–its cup even smelled like buttery pumpkin pie crust. Pretty strong, too, but it adds to the overall flavor, I thought. We all liked this one a lot. If you can find it, get it.
Wide agreement on Big Boss Harvest Time as the runner-up. One voter put this in first place, preferring the slightly mellower flavor to Pumpking’s tasty assault. This is a great lower-cost, easy to get (if you live in The NC, anyway), tasty pumpkin beer. Very nicely flavored. They clearly have an idea of what they want in a pumpkin ale and make it happen. It just so happens that I agree with their vision.
Rankings were more mixed further down the list. Everyone was pretty happy with Harvest Moon, and it placed third or fourth for everyone. It’s a solid, middle-of-the-road pumpkin ale that has the advantage of being available everywhere at least through Halloween. I think the internet generally hates this beer, but I submit that its branding plays against it for most craft brew drinkers.
Dogfish Head Punkin did well with hoppy-beer lovers (K and I, to be specific), not so much with others. It’s a little stronger-flavored. I actually wasn’t sure if it was one of the imperials at first. It’s not all that pumpkin-y, for sure. If you like a little but not a lot of that, with an overall strong flavor, this is a good choice. Sam Adams did pretty well for tasters who didn’t like the stronger hoppiness of Dogfish Head. They seem to be trying to do the same thing, though.
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin was an oddball. It was definitely distinct. Strongly pumpkin, but sort of odd. If you’ve ever been tempted to taste canned pumpkin before it’s cooked, it tastes a little, I don’t know, soapy? It’s definitely weird. It needs to be infused with sugar and butter and cooked for it to be really edible, is what I’m saying. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin kind of had a trace of that uncooked pumpkin flavor. None of us especially knew what to make of it. For the price, not really worth it.
Anyway, these tests are always educational. Either we learn that we can’t tell things apart, or we verify that we know what we’re talking about, and it’s good to know which is the case. I think the biggest takeaway with this test was that we found out we know our pumpkin ales. We guessed which all six were during testing. They are all pretty distinct, and that helps.
Not sure about the next test. Nothing planned at this point. It’ll be a good time for porters or stouts, soon, so maybe that.