It’s no secret that we have been opposed to the idea of pumpkin beers. Between the seasonal creep — fall-branded items entering stores earlier and earlier — and the array of cloying pumpkin pie spices, they simply don’t share a room with what we want from our beer-drinking experience. Despite that, there is no denying the fact that pumpkin beers are dominating the fall seasonal beer category, replacing the king of all fall seasonals, the Oktoberfest lager.
“In, say, 2006, I was in a grocery store looking for the display of Oktoberfest beers and in its place was the display of these new pumpkin beers that I had never seen before,” said Dan Kopman, co-founder of Schlafly Beer. “Anyone who would say to you that pumpkin beer is a traditional beer style is — let’s just say I’ve never found any records of pumpkin being used in making beer.” He sees pumpkin beers as a separate entity, an entirely different ale more accurately described as a “dessert malt beverage.” This is the best way for a craft beer aficionado to approach pumpkin beers. Don’t compare them to your favorite IPA, or even mass market lagers. Simply put them in a class of beverage all their own — to be consumed sparingly, cautiously and, nevertheless, zealously.
To find out whether we would ever be able to count ourselves among the pumpkin beer devotees, we gathered five of the best-regarded pumpkin brews in the world and assembled a qualified group of GP staff members to taste them. Read through to the end to see how they faired individually, and how our crew felt about the category in general when all was said and done.
The Best Pumpkin Beers from Across the Country
Horseheads Brewing Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 7.2% | New York | 91 Rating, BeerAdvocate
From the small town of Horseheads, New York, comes Horseheads Brewing’s Pumpkin Ale. The label mentions that this beer was fermented with pumpkin — a technique that differs from some of the other beers on this list. The font on the label of this beer makes it look more like early video game packaging than something that you’d find on the shelves of your local Whole Foods — a plus in our book.
Tasting Notes: Perhaps the beer containing the most actual pumpkin flavor. Bright carbonation adds body to the beer. The taste has the characteristic pumpkin pie spices as well as more subtle notes of vanilla, hops and toasted pumpkin seed.
Cigar City Brewing Good Gourd
ABV: 9.4% | Florida | 94 Rating, BeerAdvocate
Good Gourd is the little brother to Cigar City’s retired Good Gourd Almighty. It’s brewed with Ceylon cinnamon, Jamaican allspice, Zanzibar cloves and nutmeg. In lieu of adding pumpkin flavoring to the beer after it’s brewed, Cigar City incorporates pumpkins into the mashing process along with the other grains. The result is a more natural and authentic pumpkin flavor. Though the label artwork is slightly ambiguous, it’s packaged in a 22-ounce “bomber” bottle. Maybe that means it’s possible to drink that much of it.
Tasting Notes: Nope. Certainly not. Though a well-crafted beer, and enjoyable in moderation, taking down 22-spiced-cinnamon-ounces of it would be aggressive. Though one taster simply noted “bad,” many tasters labeled this as one of the best of the bunch. Notes of pumpkin pie crust and a breadiness waft up from the glass accompanied by a malty, yeasty, and as one taster put it, “ABV, boom.”
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Avery’s Pum[ky]n was last released in 2014. It is a 17.22% ABV behemoth of a beer that was aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels for six months. It is described as a pumpkin porter that is brewed with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and clove. A new batch will be releasing soon and will likely disappear as quickly as it pops up on local shelves.
ABV: 18% | Colorado | 89 Rating, BeerAdvocate
In terms of ABV, Rumpkin gives even the biggest imperial stouts a run for their money. Avery brews it with a staggering 7.5 pounds of pumpkin per barrel along with a handful of spices. They then take the beer and age it for four months in freshly emptied rum barrels. The result is nothing short of monstrous. Rumpkin comes in a 12-ounce bottle which we can only assume means that you would have trouble drinking more than that.
Tasting Notes: Wow. A big, bold beer with punch-you-in-the-face flavors. As one taster noted, “It goes down like yogurt.” Thick cloying mouthfeel and ABV are accented by hints of clove, vanilla, strong rum-and-coke-like character, eggnog and nutmeg. One taster also noted a hint of glue, which wasn’t completely off base.
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 8% | Missouri | 93 Rating, BeerAdvocate
Schlafly is upfront and honest about their Pumpkin Ale. Right on the label it says that the beer “blends the spices of the harvest with full-bodied sweetness for a beer that tastes like pumpkin pie.” Co-founder Dan Kopman keeps their proprietary process mostly under wraps, but they approach this ale not as a beer, but as a desert beverage — separate from craft lagers and IPAs. The bottle is the same as Schlafly’s highly acclaimed T.I.P.A. but is labeled as having 16 IBUs. Just how far of a departure from a true beer is this ale?
Tasting Notes: Despite the mention of sweetness, this beer was lower on the sweetness spectrum compared to other beers like Good Gourd and Rumpkin. The beer is reminiscent of an amber ale with a strong malt backbone. Not too much fake pumpkin flavor, as well as a slight bitterness that lends to its drinkability. One taster mentioned that it tastes more like a winter seasonal than it does a pumpkin beer.
Stevens Point Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 7.5% | Wisconsin | 91 Rating, BeerAdvocate
From the land of corn and cheese comes Stevens Point Brewery’s Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale. They use a blend of roasted, Munich and caramel malts to deliver a strong body. It’s brewed with real “pumpkin pie spices” and Perle hops. The label has the word “hops,” which inspires high hopes, but that hope quickly vanishes with a glance at the twist-off cap.
Tasting Notes: Despite the twist-off cap, this beer was one of the more drinkable of the bunch, though that drinkability was achieved by a mostly flat flavor profile. Hints of hot apple cider, pumpkin pie, wet cardboard and cinnamon all rise and fall throughout the palette, but vanish at the finish.
A Divided Tasting
Despite tasting five of the best pumpkin beers in the world, and looking at them as ales separate from that of your standard lager, the tasting was torn. Roughly half of our tasters enjoyed the beers and mentioned that they would drink a few on a regular basis. The other half stood their ground and echoed the original sentiment — that we simply don’t like pumpkin beers. Some were bland, others somewhat drinkable and yet others so out of the box and bold that they were verging on undrinkable. Tasting notes were all over the board from notes of glue to gingerbread and “slightly funky vanilla.” Pumpkin beers simply are. Love them or hate them, they will endure.