The fall season is upon us. As the chill is in the air, the leaves begin to change color and the smells and sights are evocative of the seasonal shift. My favorite part of the fall season isn’t the cooling weather or the Halloween candy piling up on the shelves at my grocery store; it’s the much-anticipated return of pumpkin ale.
Pumpkin brews originally started as a radical brewing experiment that teased local connoisseurs, but has since grown into one of the best-selling seasonal brews with wider distribution than ever before.
How Brewers Make Pumpkin Beer
Most craft beer brewing follows a general theme in terms of ingredients and recipes. The idea is to soak grains, add them to fermented malts and allow the mixture to season itself or take on the flavors of the vessel in which it rests. Most brewers use wooden kegs for the fermentation process. Others use vats, barrels and even actual pumpkins as kegs in which a secondary fermentation occurs.
While the brewing process is relatively standardized, the ingredients in each brew differ greatly, especially in terms of seasonal offerings. Some brewers chop up fresh, raw jack-o’-lantern bits and toss them into the fermenting mash to impart that squashy flavor. Others prefer to roast the pumpkin with a method similar to that of making a pie, bringing out the sugars and subtler flavors through heat and caramelization. Yet others still opt to use pumpkin extracts, syrups or flavorings and rely on wooden kegs to impart an earthy essence.
Each brew master has their own different process. One brewery in particular chooses to use roasted malts instead of caramelized malts in their pumpkin beer. Although the caramel flavor seems like the obvious choice in terms of pairing the sugars with the pumpkin, the roasted malts bring to mind a likeness of pie crust. Another brewery has found that that tossing whole vanilla beans into the kegs brings out the sweeter notes of natural pumpkin and likens it to the whipped cream atop a warm slice of pie.
This is the beauty of this popular seasonal ale, as well as craft beer as a whole. Every brew master has a different process that they follow. As such, we are given the gift of a wide range of styles and flavors – for better or worse.
Four Tips to Identifying a Good Pumpkin Beer
With so many styles of pumpkin beer available, a quick review on beer tasting best practices is in order. There are essentially four qualities you want to look for in a great beer.
First is the look of the brew. Take in the color, the sediment and the head. If properly poured from a keg, the head reveals much about the ingredients and quality of the beer. Do not hold the glass up to the light. This diffuses the natural and true color of the beer. Ideally, pumpkin ale is golden to red-tinted, whereas a pumpkin stout is thick and black as a moonless night.
Second is the movement of the beer in the glass. Gently agitate it by swirling in the glass to release aromas and test the stability of the head. Unlocking these characteristics will significantly enhance your tasting experience.
Thirdly, smell the beer. The olfactory glands capture much of the flavor, and nuances the taste buds cannot detect register through smell. This stage reveals the many spices accompanying the pumpkin in the beer: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove often make an appearance. Breathe in and out through the nose only, and then breathe in and out through the mouth only.
Finally, taste the beer. Allow it to flood the entire palette, utilizing all the taste receptors in the mouth. Notice bitterness, sweetness, flavors, and mouthfeel, which is the general consistency and thickness of the liquid.
Different Styles Equal Different Experiences
Choosing the best pumpkin beer is mostly a matter of taste and preference. Although these four elements come in handy for tasting and discovering your preference, there are different styles of pumpkin beer that you must choose from.
If you like a beer that tastes like pumpkin pie, consider the pumpkin stouts that are growing in popularity. With their thick mouthfeel and sweet malty finish, these beers are already a meal-in-a-glass with pumpkin thrown in. They make a sweet ending to any meal and a pleasant way to warm you up on a cool evening. If you happen to find one tapped from a nitrous keg, similar to Guinness, the effect and over all experience will be even better.
If you prefer the fresh and savory flavor of bright, raw pumpkin, then pumpkin lagers and ales may just be the best style for you. These lighter beers are big on flavor without all the malty heaviness of the darker brews. With a similar color to the deciduous fall leaves and the memory-rich spiciness of nutmeg and cinnamon, these beers practically sing an autumn love song.
Celebrate Pumpkin Beer: Festivals & At-Home Enjoyment
Many of the big cities around the country host annual pumpkin beer festivals. Seattle, Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Washington D.C. and others bring out their specialty brews and seasonal food offerings for a festival dedicated to this growing trend. With an entrance ticket, you have access to multiple kegs of craft brews. Each festival is different, with some preferring to serve up local beers, while others go for the best the country has to offer. There are also often Halloween crafts, costumes, food and free-flowing pumpkin beers. Tickets cover entrance and a handful of tastings, more of which are available throughout the event.
Thanks to Pinterest, YouTube and other social media sites, many great ideas for enjoying your seasonal selections at home are available to anyone with an Internet connection. Take a cue from the brewery festivals and construct a pumpkin keg at home to house your flavored beer. If that seems like too much work, just carve out small pie pumpkins to serve as mugs for your guests. Serve beers with accompanying foods that bring out the nuanced flavors of the beer. Spiced nuts, buttery pastries and caramelized sweet vegetables make a great addition to the tasting palette.
If you really enjoy the flavor of pumpkin beers, you should definitely source a keg of it from your local craft beer store before it’s too late. Storing it in your kegerator at home, you’ll be able to enjoy this seasonal beer deep into the colder months of the year. But don’t wait, acquiring a keg full of this seasonal brew may not be easy, and will only get harder as the days go on.
Top 10 Rated Pumpkin Ales
In case you’re interested in trying a pumpkin beer, but don’t know where to start, here’s a list of the top ten rated pumpkin ales according to the loyal members of BeerAdvocate.com, as well as a link to where you can learn more about each individual brew. Please note that this list may change over time, but these are the ten most popular as of the date of this publication.
- Good Gourd Imperial Pumpkin Ale – Cigar City Brewing (8.50% ABV)
- Pumpkin Ale – Selin’s Grove Brewing Company (5.60% ABV)
- Schlafly Pumpkin Ale – Saint Louis Brewery (8.0% ABV)
- Pumpkin Ale – Williamsburg AleWerks (8.0% ABV)
- Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale – Stevens Point Brewery (7.50% ABV)
- Pumpkin Ale – Horseheads Brewing Inc. (6.60% ABV)
- The Great Pumpkin – Elysian Brewing Company (8.10% ABV)
- 25th Anniversary Imperial Pumpkin – Lakefront Brewery, Inc. (8.0% ABV)
- Kuhnhenn All Hallows Ale — Kuhnhenn Brewing Company (7.0% ABV)
- Pumking – Southern Tier Brewing Company (8.60% ABV)
It must also be noted that my personal favorite – Saint Arnold’s Pumpkinator – did not make the top-rated list above, but is definitely worth giving a try.
Final Thoughts on Pumpkin Beer
Whether you choose to go big or stay home, brewers offer a vast array of seasonal pumpkin beers to choose from. Small kegs for the house are available for private use, while the brewery experience enhances the flavors of the beer by offering each hand-crafted beverage straight from the brewing kegs. However you participate, just remember to enjoy responsibly, keep notes on which beers are your favorites and share your favorites with us in the comments below.