1) Quality: Like other beer styles, the majority of them are mediocre, with a few being disgusting and a few being amazing. The old bell curve strikes again! Having come into this experiment believing that I loved the style, I was a bit surprised at how many of the beers didn't really do it for me! I've stated before that pumpkin beers are very polarizing: people love them or hate them. I'm wondering if the haters may have tried some of the nasty beers and are basing their hatred on this.
2) Spicing: This is really the key to the style. My favorites of the season had recognizable spicing, but erred on the subtle and balanced side. Too many of the beers I tried were over the top spiced and ended with a harsh bitterness that was off-putting. So if you are going to try this yourself use a light hand on the spices. Nutmeg dominates when combined with the other pumpkin pie spices of ginger, allspice, clove, and cinnamon, so maybe cut that down a bit to get a better rounded spice mix. Top choices for doing this well were Wasatch, Brooklyn Post Road and Town Hall Petunia's. Also some of the beers I tried had strange additional spices like lemongrass and cardamom--with varied results.
3) Malt: The best of the beers were ones in which there was a malty backbone to balance the potential bitterness from spices and pumpkin itself. ESB, Octoberfest, and Imperial's were all the best base styles for these. I enjoyed a couple of the porters, but the roast malt astringency tended to exacerbate the bitterness from the spices. Best of these was Town Hall, Terrapin Pumpkinfest, and Pumking.
4) Pumpkin: Most pumpkin beers have little to no recognizable pumpkin flavor. Some of the beers I tried had no actual pumpkin in them at all. The few that I felt had true pumpkin flavor where Southern Tier Pumking, Terrapin, and Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma (OK yam, not pumpkin for that one!) From my own attempt at pumpkin beer, (tried before spicing,) I did get a hint of pumpkin flavor, but not much considering the huge amount of pumpkin we put into that beer!
5) Weird: I enjoyed trying some different styles of pumpkin beer, like sours, cider and shandy--just to mix things up. There is only so much you can say about the flavor of nutmeg and malt when judging pumpkin beers! However, none of these unusual beers scored very highly in my final tally.
6) Overall favorite? Town Halls Petunia's Pumpkin, due to perfect balance of malt, mild spicing and easy drinkability. Glad I have a growler of this in fridge right now! Second place was actually The Punkacolypse Brau that Mike Lebben and I fought so hard to create. Having tried so many commercial examples I was frankly shocked at how well this beer turned out. I want to try brewing it again next year with a bit less pumpkin and a lot more rice hulls!
Crazy Mountain Rocky Mountain High Pumpkin Pie Beer: That is a mouthful! Located in Vail Valley, Colorado this is a brewery I haven't really heard much about prior to this. I had this beer the other night on draft at The Happy Gnome with a charcuterie plate prior to a Laphroaig tasting upstairs.
Aroma: Nutmeg up front, followed by pumpkin and a hint of caramel. Slight apple or pear ester to it. Cinnamon as it warms up.
Appearance: Orange to copper color (but it was dark in the restaurant!) Medium sized white head that persisted well. Small bubbles. Excellent clarity with no haze.
Flavor: Malty but not overly sweet, a bit of caramel in flavor. Strong nutmeg and allspice flavors really dominate this beer. Medium body, but the residual harsh astringent and chemical burn from the spices make this seem to end thin. Like sucking on a clove or allspice berry this has a tongue coating medicinal burning to it, even after done with the sip.
Overall: I like the aroma and initial taste, but that lingering harsh finish kills this for me. Simply too much spice that isn't in balance with the base beer. 3/5.
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin: This brewery has been around Minnesota for a few years, but honestly has not really had much presence in the beer scene. No special events, few rare beer releases, and what I see as a basic lack of support in this market. Every once in a while I'll pick up one of the beers with mixed results--sometimes I love it (Tiny) and other times I don't (Double Simcoe). This beer clocks in at 8% ABV, and is made with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom.
Aroma: Rich nutmeg and cinnamon on first whiff. On deeper inhalation I get a lot of sweet sugar and some carmelized malt. Hint of fruity pear and apple as swirled. Slight earthy notes as it warms.
Appearance: Deep ruby in color. Very clear with no haze. Medium fine off-white head.
Flavor: Maltiness up front (unsurprisingly). A hit of nutmeg and cinnamon after the initial malt bomb. The finish fades to a strong cardamom flavor and astringency that stays with you. Because of this the beer ends very dry and almost puckering. There is some real pumpkin hiding in there. Also some of the fruity esters from the aroma come through as it warms up. Body is medium. Very slight alcohol warming present.
Overall: The first sip is appealing, but the finish is just so harsh that this is difficult to keep drinking. This is one that (to me) isn't worth the calories. 2.5/5.
Southern Tier Warlock: A pumpkin Imperial stout from the fine folks who brought you Pumpking! I wanted to have both of these beers at the same time, but with both being higher alcohol beers, deemed it unwise. So we tried this out after dinner, as a desert unto itself.
Aroma: Powerful roasted pumpkin flesh and vanilla at first, reminding me very strongly of Pumpking. Ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg all play about in the aroma. The combination of pumpkin with ginger and vanilla reminds me strongly of pumpkin pie with gingerbread crust. Smells very sweet. No hop aromas. Very little roast malt.
Appearance: Deep brown with ruby highlights, not as opaque and black as most Imperial stouts. Large tan head that is persistent. Fine bubbles and lacing on glass.
Flavor: Sweet vanilla and pumpkin/malt up front--like pie! This initial sweetness fades to a ginger and alcohol heat on the palate finished with a mild roasty finish. A slow updraft of nutmeg and cinnamon with lingering vanilla at end. As it warms I get some lemon zing that might be hop character. There is a definite bitterness to the beer, seemingly from hopping. Medium bodied.
Overall: A very interesting beer, getting higher marks than expected due to its uniqueness. I don't get as much of the dark malt and roasty notes that I expect in an Imperial stout and was a bit disappointed in that. It seemed like a regular pumpkin beer brewed with a little debittered black malt to add color without flavor...like a schwartzbier. The lemon and ginger really made this taste more like a gingerbread cookie than a true pumpkin beer. Worth a try. 4/5.
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager: This is a fun beer from Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, WI. I tried this last year when in town for my cousin's wedding and really liked it. I'm happy to say that we now get Lakefront beers in Minnesota and I found a bottle at the Four Firkins. They did put out a 25th anniversary Imperial version of the beer this year but I never found one to sample.
Aroma: Surprise! Nutmeg and cinnamon, with a light ginger aroma after some deep sniffs. Mild pumpkin aroma as swirled. Some sweet malt. No hop aroma.
Appearance: Light orange in color. Brilliantly clear and sparkling. Small white head with fine bubbles, mostly from the nucleation site on the bottom of my glass.
Flavor: Malty but not overly sweet, more like a Vienna lager. A good mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger that is not overwhelming but does stay with you after the sip. No astringency. No hop flavors. Finish is crisp and lagery with a hint of pilsner malt. Mouthfeel is a bit light.
Overall: Not a bad beer. I like the crispness of it and the well balanced spices. 3.5/5.
Jack-O Traveler Shandy: This is a shandy, half lemonade and half beer. The Traveler Beer Company jumped into the scene a few years ago (possibly on the coat-tails of Leinie's Shandy) and has started putting out some seasonal varieties. I believe that this company is owned by Boston Beer Company, but it does not say so anywhere in their on-line information (then again neither does Angry Orchard).
Aroma: Lots of ginger and lemon in the initial aroma. A light nutmeg aroma arrives as this is swirled. Sweet and tart battle it out on the nose.
Appearance: Deep orange in color. There is a slight haze, but not much. Large off-white head that persists well.
Flavor: A tart lemon flavor fades to a sweet classic pumpkin pie finish. I get nutmeg at the back of the tongue and a dry sweet-tart finish. No hop at all. Mouthfeel is just a bit more than light. The spicing is perfect--bringing out the pumpkin pie flavors well. As it warms though, this beer gets a bit flabby and loses its edge.
Overall: A good experiment that I didn't think would work. Better than expected, and refreshing. Drink it fast, though because it is best cold. 3/5.
New Belgium Pumpkick: This is a new seasonal offering from the always experimental New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado. This is an unusual beer that is made with pumpkin juice, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, lemongrass, and cranberry juice.
Aroma: Malty sweetness blended with nutmeg and allspice. There is a tart zing in the aroma like lemon and grape tannin. A bit of fruitiness, perhaps from hops. As this warms I get more cinnamon.
Appearance: Deep gold to nearly orange in color. A very mild haze is present. Large white head that sticks around.
Flavor: Maltiness up front, but not really sweet. There is a tart finish from cranberry and lemon that dry the end of this up. A mellow nutmeg and cinnamon are left at the end. Excellent balance between the sweet malt and the spices. Not much true pumpkin picked up.
Overall: This was a nice way to end my experiment in pumpkin beers. This one has some unusual flavors, but everything is so well balanced that it rises to the top of my list. 4/5.