In this new Paste Drink series, we take a step back from the craft beer hype cycle to offer our enduring endearments to some of our favorite beers that have stood the test of time. These beers should be considered paragons of their respective styles, and just because they’re available year round (in most cases), that never makes us any less excited to crack one open. These are the Beers We Love, and they’ve earned our respect.
As a publication, Paste has a long and contentious relationship with pumpkin beers. If you’re reading this, you’re likely at least passingly aware of our long-running series of blind craft beer style tastings, but you may not realize that it was pumpkin beer that first kicked off our habit of gathering a bunch of beers together at one time and tasting them side by side. In fact, an annual tasting and ranking of pumpkin beers well predates my time at Paste, going back to at least 2012, when we were proud to be able to assemble a paltry 20 pumpkin beers. Just a few years later, we were at 63.
One thing was always constant, though, and it’s this: A lot of those beers were frankly terrible! Pumpkin beers, for all the good they did in exposing new consumers to the craft beer world and ushering in the idea of “seasonal” beer styles for many breweries, have always been a gimmick-laden, hit-and-miss style. This is the very nature of pumpkin beer itself—they’re fueled by a gimmick that leans on artificiality, and many of them don’t seem to be taken seriously, even by the breweries that make them. They walk a razor’s edge, in the sense that there has to be an assertive spice presence for them to be categorized as pumpkin beers, but those added flavors can all too easily go completely overboard. Hell, many of them don’t even involve pumpkins at any point in the brewing process.
If you’ve regularly consumed pumpkin beer over the years, this should be something you know just as well as us—a lot of pumpkin beers are bad, and the worst of them are truly horrible; syrupy abominations that taste like melted autumn spice candles. And to make matters worse, even the good pumpkin beers aren’t always consistent from year to year, which frequently makes buying the style a frustrating affair.
And that, dear readers, is why the existence of a reliably excellent pumpkin beer was such a novelty when I first discovered it as a newspaper reporter living in central Illinois. It was Schlafly Pumpkin Ale, and it completely changed my perception of what a pumpkin beer could be. If only more of them were on its level, we might have to reevaluate the entire style. As it happens, though, Schlafly Pumpkin Ale is instead a cherished outlier—an island of sanity in a style defined by ludicrous excess.
No disrespect intended to the original progenitor of the style, Buffalo Bill’s.
It would be stupid (and inaccurate) to say the reason for this beer’s greatness is that it does something that none of the other pumpkin beers on the market do. In fact, it does the same things that pretty much all pumpkin beers do, and simply executes and balances them more perfectly. Are there a lot of pumpkin beers out there that come very close to the same flavor profile as Schlafly Pumpkin Ale? Sure, but none of them dial it in quite as perfectly, or quite as consistently, year to year. It’s that combination of taste and dependability that make this beer a perennial classic.
It’s all too easy to overlook the base beer underneath the “pumpkin” and “spice” elements, so let’s give it its due. I’m not sure exactly what kind of grist is involved in this mash, but it creates the perfect foundation—a canvas for spices, but not a “blank” canvas by any means. I suppose one might refer to the base beer as a “strong amber ale,” or perhaps something that shares characteristics with a scotch ale, but it’s wonderfully evocative and subtle, all at once. Toasty malt looms large, with hints of caramel richness, Grape-Nuts cereal and black tea maltiness. The ABV is dialed in at 8%, which perfectly serves the beer’s purposes, giving it a full body and silky texture, while also contributed hints of red fruitiness (think plum/cranberry). The sweetness is perfectly calculated to suggest richness while still finishing dry enough to be drinkable—dangerously drinkable, given the ABV. It’s the kind of beer that could get you into trouble at a holiday party, if you’re not careful.
And then, of course, there are the spices. They’re assertive, certainly, to the point of rightly becoming the stars of the show, but they don’t trample over every other aspect of the beer, which is the fatal flaw of so many pumpkin ales. The spices of Schlafly Pumpkin Ale are harmonious and inviting—they project a nose of warm, fragrant, sweet cinnamon, with hints of toasted bread, ginger, clove and nutmeg. On the palate, it’s a bit like “brown sugar cinnamon,” initially sweet on the front end before drying out, giving an overall impression that might remind one of a gingerbread/cinnamon molasses cookie, perhaps with a bit of cherry syrup on the side. The spices pop with big, unmistakable verve on the front end, but then they have the wherewithal to withdraw, which tempts your next sip to repeat the epicurean pleasure of the first. It’s that dry finish that really makes the beer.
If you’ve ever read the flavor text on bottles of pumpkin beer—and lord knows we’ve read a lot of them at Paste—then you’ve seen countless promises that the contents of those bottles will taste just like “a slice of pumpkin pie.” Even if this is true, it’s not exactly the most desirable of qualities for any beer we’re expected to consume in 12 or 16 oz servings. It suggests something with all the sweetness and decadence of a true dessert, and although many drinkers in the pumpkin beer market are indeed looking for something cloyingly sweet (cough Pumking cough) or artificially flavored, we are not. Schlafly makes this same “pumpkin pie” promise on its label, executes it, and God help us, it turns out to be something not only tolerable but bewitchingly delicious. It’s perhaps the one time we’ll ever write that something “tastes like pie” and mean it as a compliment, rather than a detraction.
That’s why we love it.
Alright, we’ll give it to ya: Tastes like pie!
2018 will mark the end of a Paste tradition, in the sense that, for the first time in 7 years, we will not be blind tasting a bunch of pumpkin beers during October.
Why not? Well, as has become increasingly obvious in the last few years, we have long passed the point of “peak pumpkin,” at least in the beer world. Amidst the slowing of overall craft growth, one of the underreported stories has been the seeming obsolescence of old-school “seasonal” styles, and pumpkin beer is the #1 example. It became clear in 2016 and 2017 in particular that consumers were much less enamored with the novelty of pumpkin beer than in the past, with many breweries (even pumpkin specialists such as the AB InBev-owned Elysian) decreasing their production or condensing their pumpkin brands into fewer separate products. Look no further than Sam Adams, which a few years ago had as many as four different pumpkin ales at one time. Now, in 2018? They have only one, and it doesn’t even get a description on the Samuel Adams website, instead simply being lumped in with the “Beers of Fall” variety pack. That’s how far pumpkin beer has fallen, as a trend.
And yet, it’s not as if all those pumpkin beer fans fell off the face of the Earth. They’re still out there, and they’re still interested in drinking solid versions of the classic American pumpkin ale. Perhaps ironically, the average quality of pumpkin beers in the U.S. has probably never been higher than it is now. Thanks to pioneering breweries such as Firestone Walker or others, pumpkin sours have come on in a big way in recent years, adding a new dimension to the “amber ale with spices” pumpkin beer formula. You no longer know for a fact exactly what a “pumpkin beer” is going to taste like when you see “pumpkin” on a label, and that’s a good thing.
These different approaches to pumpkin beer are likely what will keep the style viable for many beer drinkers, but there should also be room here for a true classic, like Schlafly Pumpkin Ale. Ultimately, this beer is proof that the classical, spiced pumpkin ale format was never a bad idea—it just requires tip-top formulation and execution. Done right, the fall pumpkin beer is capable of being a revelation. Done wrong, they taste like liquid potpourri.
Just ask Schlafly. They certainly know what they’re doing, when it comes to pumpkin ale.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.