Ah, pumpkin beer. So much has changed at Paste since we conducted our pumpkin beer tasting and ranking last year, and yet the beers still remain the same.
When we ranked pumpkin beer in 2014, we must admit that Paste tastings were significantly more haphazard. We tasted too many beers at one time, and we didn’t conduct our tastings blind. In the last year, roughly coinciding with my own arrival at Paste and constant contributions to Paste Drink, we’ve come to refine that process. We now conduct just about everything blind, and the quality/skill of the tasters participating in these rankings has risen as well. The process was helped along by a positive response, as both readers and breweries showed that they appreciated the extra labor that was going into the blind tastings. It was a no-brainer to make blind-tasting our standard.
Those changes to process become especially interesting via a style like “pumpkin beer.” Although the definition of those words has greatly broadened to include substyles such as “pumpkin sour,” “pumpkin stout” and so many others, the majority will forever by the classic American pumpkin ale: Amber in color, malty-sweet, chock full of spices, little if anything to do with actual pumpkin. Tasting all of those beers side-by-side in a blind setting is a true test of the taste buds. Oftentimes, very little separates one from other. In other cases, the exemplary (and the terrible) stand out quite easily. We found the end results fascinating, and we stand by our taste, as I’ll explain in more detail immediately below.
Notes on beer acquisition and personal taste
As usual with our tastings, most of these beers arrived from breweries around the country who wanted to participate, although determining when exactly to host the tasting was a little difficult. Seasonal creep has pushed the release of certain pumpkin beers earlier and earlier, while other breweries have responded by releasing their pumpkin offerings later. Ultimately, we acquired the most we’ve ever had in one place at one time, but there were of course some notable beers missing. Cigar City’s Good Gourd is one of these that we wish we could have included, as it’s performed well in our tastings in the past, but we simply didn’t receive any.
Also—a note on Pumking. Yes, Southern Tier Pumking. This beer, to put it bluntly, has quite the reputation in the Paste offices. We know how many people adore it, and consider it to be a defining part of their fall holiday season. That’s great. More power to you. But we don’t like Pumking. This is the fifth year of us tasting it in pumpkin beer rankings, and it’s never performed well. Not once, with probably dozens of different tasters over the years. We’re not sure how there’s such a gulf between the way we perceive it and the tastes of so many drinkers, aside from the fact that we find the beer a mess of cloyingly sweet and chemically artificial “natural flavors,” but it’s probably the single most unpopular beer-related opinion we have on a yearly basis. So, before you start firing up a comment about Pumking, at least let us acknowledge that:
Yes, we know that the recipe changes from year to year.
Yes, we tried a fresh bottle from the 2015 batch.
Yes, it was tasted blind.
No, we still didn’t like it.
Fault us for many things, but don’t fault us for consistency.
Rules and Procedure
- All entries claim something to do with pumpkin, but all styles are included. There is no ABV limit. Whether or not there’s any real pumpkin involved, if it says “pumpkin” anywhere on the label, it’s fair game.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. This only came into play in limiting a few breweries such as Elysian, which sent four different pumpkin beers. In these cases, we included the two with the highest online ratings.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, beer reps and assorted journalists. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged.
The Field: Beers #45-21
The following beers represent the offerings that didn’t make the top 20, aka “the finals.” They’re listed below in alphabetical order and are not ranked, as another one of our changes to procedure in the last year has been the recognition that these lists are about the BEST beers we’ve sampled rather than the worst. Once again, the only reason I specifically mentioned Pumking above is because we know from past experience that the comments section will invariably be full of Pumking-related comments anyway.
Once again, the beers below are not ranked.
Alaskan Brewing Co. Pumpkin Ale
Ballast Point Pumpkin Down
Blue Point Brewing Co. Pumpkin Ale
Brooklyn Brewery Post Road
Coronado Brewing Co. Punk’In Drublic
DuClaw Brewing Co. 31
DuClaw Brewing Co. 62
Elysian Brewing Co. The Great Pumpkin
Flying Dog Gourd Standard Pumpkin IPA
Flying Dog The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin
Heavy Seas the Great’ER Pumpkin
He’Brew Reunion Ale ‘15 (contains pumpkin)
Iron Hill Pumpkin Ale
Karbach Brewing Co. Krunkin’ Pumpkin
Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch
Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Southern Tier Warlock Imperial Pumpkin Stout
Terrapin Beer Co. Pumpkinfest
21st Amendment He Said Baltic Porter (with pumpkin)
21st Amendment He Said Tripel (with pumpkin)
Uinta Brewing Co. Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Uinta Brewing Co. Punk’n
Urban Chestnut Count Orlok
Warped Wing Brewing Co. Flying Heads
City: Hampton, NH
The verdict: Smuttynose actually does use real pumpkin in the mash of this beer, not that this really matters—even when breweries make the token gesture, it’s rare to actually pick up a flavor that makes you think “Well there’s the underlying gourdy-ness.” What this is, rather, is just a solid pumpkin ale in the classic mold: A bit of that cooked pumpkin sweetness, and spices of nutmeg and ginger. This one goes a little lighter on the cinnamon than most, which is a nice change of pace, and it also comes off as a bit hoppier than some of the other classic pumpkin ale examples on the table. But still, it’s the kind of pumpkin ale that you could hand to a friend, tell them it’s from their favorite regional brewery, and they would probably believe you, because it’s a flavor combination that is equal parts well-executed and familiar.
City: Huntsville, AL
The verdict: “Pumpkin” pops harder to me on this beer than in most every other example on the table, although there’s no shortage of cinnamon-led spice either. A tribute to Huntsville’s first craft brewery, Olde Towne, who sold their brewing space to StA when they first opened, it’s a beer in the classic pumpkin ale style but with a few more unusual twists. Assertive in flavor, with a big charge of cinnamon, but also a little bit of tang that almost makes it seem just the slightest bit tart. That note may or may not be detectable to you, but there was just enough unique stuff going on here to make us go back for repeated sips.
City: Charlotte, NC
The verdict: NoDa makes their intentions to make a non-standard pumpkin beer immediately clear on the can for Gordgeous, and you have to at least admire their gumption. In addition to using plenty of actual pumpkin and brown sugar in each batch (which actually lightens body and enhances drinkability), they willfully choose to go a different route with the spices by not including any cinnamon or nutmeg. Rather, it’s instead heavy on allspice, cardamom, cloves and ginger root, which gives Gordgeous an immediately different nose than other beers on the table. The ginger is instantly recognizable and pops strongly—it actually reminded me of a Belgian witbier I had in Huntsville, AL, from Yellowhammer Brewing Co. Others picked up on “raw pumpkin flavor,” which, along with the ginger, makes for a rather more complex and thoughtful beer than many on the table. The spices might be a little abrasive to some, but you get definite points for being unique in this field.
City: Newport, OR
The verdict: An interesting, restrained little pumpkin beer from Rogue, which you almost expect to taste gigantic, given the ceramic bottle. In reality, though, it features a pleasantly toasty, bready maltiness and stays pretty dry. The inclusion of both ginger and vanilla give it a little bit of “gingerbread cookie” character that almost make it seem a little bit more like a spiced winter warmer or Christmas beer than pumpkin ale, not that this is a bad thing by any means. In short: A nice, clean autumnal brew that doesn’t hit you over the head with sweetness or spice. We’d recommend this one to those who are more sensitive to spiciness or want to favor drinkability.
City: Crozet, VA
The verdict: Critics of this beer would probably call it lacking in flavor, but it’s really a porter that is all about cleanliness of presentation and subtlety. Anything “pumpkin”-related, along with the spicing, are both dialed back, and your main feature is a very dry, pleasant, light roastiness and cocoa powder flavors. Of all the beers on the table, this is probably one of the least spice-forward, but that honestly comes across as a nice change of pace. What you’re left with is a very clean, well-crafted English porter with hints of fall spice and coffee flavors, and a nice vanilla note on the nose. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s drinkable as hell if you like a good roasty, dry porter and don’t demand high levels of spice. For the record, though, we do question the double “R” at the end of “boxcarr.”
City: Easton, PA
The verdict: A classic that has always done at least respectably in our pumpkin beer tastings, Weyerbacher’s offering is pretty much a template for higher-ABV American pumpkin beers to follow. Big on spice but especially big on malt, it makes the heft of its 8% ABV felt pretty strongly, with deep caramel richness and dried fruit flavors that are chased by the ubiquitous pie spices one expects to be present. It’s a tad boozy, which is acceptable for the style, and packs a not-unsubstantial degree of residual sweetness, which enhances the “pumpkin pie” impression. Although really, it’s almost less “pumpkin pie,” and more “pumpkin fruitcake,” which is okay by us. We’ll take another slice, please.
City: Holland, MI
The verdict: Another classical pumpkin ale on the more understated side, New Holland’s Ichabod (a name we love, by the way) has an interestingly dry, nutty maltiness and light caramel flavors as well. Spices are restrained and in good balance with the malt, and you can even get a bit of Cascade hoppiness, which isn’t something you pick up in many of these beers. It’s light of body, easy-drinking and finishes clean. A session pumpkin beer, if you will.
City: Fort Collins, CO
The verdict: This New Belgium seasonal has never been universally adored, and it’s easy to understand why, because it treads off the beaten path and into fairly unusual pumpkin beer territory. Cranberry juice, of all things, adds acidity and pushes it into very mild tartness—I’d call it something like a pumpkin Berliner weiss, but the tartness is even lighter, barely on the edge of perceptibility to some palates. “Pumpkin juice,” meanwhile, gives it some of that gourd flavor, while spices and lemongrass contribute other citrus and spice notes. One taster wrote the final product was “oddly tart, lemon juice and spices, refreshing,” which about sums it up. A lighter-bodied pumpkin brew despite the 6% ABV, it looks hazy in the glass and slightly out of place on the table, but we found ourselves appreciating the deviation from the norm. It’s a pumpkin beer for those trying to avoid the richness found in so many of the others.
City: Kansas City, MO
The verdict: Putting brettanomyces in a pumpkin beer, now there’s an interesting idea. As with the New Belgium Pumpkick, it’s mildly tart, which caused one of the tasters to note that it was like a “pumpkin Berliner.” Lemon citrus flavors are present, and a refreshing lightness of body. Spices are there (cinnamon and allspice), and prickle with the combination of carbonation and acidity. As with the previous example, we couldn’t help but enjoy the deviation from the norm and the easy-drinking quality that the tartness promotes. These lightly soured pumpkin beers do wonders toward increasing the sessionability of a style that is often cloying. We’re happy to see more of them adding some variation to the yearly pumpkin deluge.
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: This beer is almost impossible to rate, because it barely even qualifies as beer. The people at Avery, in their quest to create the most insane barrel-aged seasonal beers ever devised, have cooked up this rum barrel-aged pumpkin monstrosity that assaults the palate with overwhelmingly rich waves of dried fruit dunked in spice and heavy syrup. A single sip of this would be an instant hangover cure before immediately making you drunk again. It should be kept in the little casks on the necks of St. Bernard rescue dogs. Like a ridiculous barleywine on steroids, it’s wonderful in small doses—very small doses—if you can handle the booziness and resulting flavor bomb. Its complexity is what saves it, and this does make you want to nurse a tiny snifter of Rumpkin over the course of a night in front of a crackling fire and bearskin rug. But if someone wants to enjoy an entire 12 oz of this beer at a time, we’re a little worried about them.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: Last year’s #1 pumpkin beer fell down the rankings a little bit, but it’s still excellent stuff. There are no surprises in the flavor profile—on the sweeter, richer side, but it hides the 8% ABV pretty well. Spices, especially cinnamon, are big on the nose but not quite as present in the flavor, and some tasters thought it was lacking in complexity of spice notes. Brown sugar sweetness comes through big, but turns slightly astringent on the finish. Ultimately, we enjoyed this beer quite a bit, but others in the tasting approached the classic pumpkin ale style in much the same way and rose to even greater heights.
City: San Francisco, CA
The verdict: Okay, now this is a true “pumpkin sour.” Where the New Belgium or Boulevard entries toy with tartness, this one makes no qualms about it, hitting you with a charge of straight-up lactic sourness. Simultaneously rich and sumptuous, with a bit of light roastiness and warming spices, it’s an intriguing, unusual beer without any point of comparison among the other 44 we tasted. We’re not entirely sure that you would ever think “pumpkin” while tasting it blind, but you would at least pick up on a bit of cinnamon and clovey spice. The barrels may be the real stars of the thing, though, as they beautifully blend vinous red wine and vanilla/bourbon char. It’s a complex, thought-provoking beer that pushes the limits of what one might consider a holiday-appropriate pumpkin beer.
City: Boston, MA
The verdict: We’ve praised this beer before, and we’ll do it again. Far superior to the other Sam Adams-branded pumpkin brews, Fat Jack is probably Boston Beer Co.’s best seasonal special release. It checks off all the classic pumpkin ale boxes one by one. It’s rich and malty, strong but with well-integrated booze and no shortage of deeply caramelized, fruity flavors—think raisin and fruitcake. Spice trails, in good proportion with the malt—it almost reminds one of an English-style barleywine or old ale that has received the spice treatment. As one taster wrote, “sweet and spicy, brandied barleywine.” This is a beer to give credit where credit is due—Boston Beer Co. has this one down to a science.
City: Boston, MA
The verdict: And speaking of credit where credit is due … Harpoon! In the top 10 of a blind-tasting, and with an imperial stout, no less. This is simply an impressive beer on a technical level. It’s 10.5% ABV, but you would never know that without having seen the label. Booziness is present but minimal, and mostly makes itself felt through a huge, thick mouthfeel. The underlying stout presents great roast and cocoa character in particular, along with coffee and molasses sweetness. Spices are present with a very pleasant, authentic impression of whole cinnamon sticks. The drying/bittering effect of its big roast character keeps the final product from getting even close to cloying, even with the molasses addition. It’s far more “imperial stout” than it is “pumpkin beer,” but it’s just a solidly made beer regardless. We can’t help but think that the same beer, presented in a bottle from a trendy, up-and-coming brewery, would draw rave reviews.
City: Cornelius, NC
The verdict: This burly imperial pumpkin ale appeared out of left field and lit up our taste buds with a balanced but assertive presentation of malt and spices. Spicy on the nose, with big cinnamon and nutmeg character, it’s balanced by rich toffee and dried cherries/prune-like fruitiness. The alcohol is hidden astoundingly well for a 10% ABV beer with this much crystal malt in it—that’s really the thing we found so difficult to believe. As it warms, it grows more complex, with spicy notes of ginger emerging that remind us of a chewy, brown sugar-laden gingersnap. It’s a very impressive imperial pumpkin ale that avoids both the overspicing and oversweetening pitfalls to create something very satisfying.
City: Milton, DE
The verdict: A classic of the genre that has been around for ages, Punkin has regularly snuck into the top portions of our pumpkin beer rankings because it’s just so clean and drinkable. Thinner of body and far easier drinking than you’d expect of a 7% ABV spiced ale, Punkin brings biscuity malt and the lightest of brown sugar sweetness to the party, while dialing down the spice notes. There’s a wonderfully graham cracker-like quality to its malt presence, almost as if the brewery sat down with “pumpkin pie” in mind but decided to focus on a different aspect of pie than most of the others. As one taster wrote, “modest pumpkin and spice, but super smooth and drinkable.” It’s simple, but undeniably effective—one thinks it might get lost in the shuffle when blind-tasting, but each taster independently found subtleties to appreciate in its approach. In fact, it’s without a doubt the most reserved beer in the top 10, but there’s an x-factor there that becomes unsurprising once the source is revealed.
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: If this is what “pumpkin latte” actually tasted like, we would be all for the style. Elysian’s Punkuccino is essentially a pumpkin coffee stout of sorts, and the “stout” can’t be overlooked—this is more than simply a classic pumpkin ale with some coffee dumped in. Rather, it embraces its dark side pretty strongly, with very nice cocoa and nutty malt flavors that blend beautifully with its charge of delicious Stumptown Coffee. There’s an excellent balance between mocha sweetness and balancing bitter roast, before spice character arrives on the back end with just a hint that you’re drinking something other than a straight coffee stout. Anything “pumpkin”-related is tough to pick up, but who cares? It’s in there somewhere, and we’ll take big-time coffee flavors over big-time “gourd flavors” any day of the week. This beer would be spectacular for a Halloween pancake breakfast (or maybe the morning after).
City: Houston, TX
The verdict: Woah, son, batten down the hatches—a flavor storm is rolling in. This beer, in a word, is massive … hugely flavorful, and just barely on the right side of decency. An imperial stout suffused in spices, it’s nearly overwhelming at times, which had one taster writing “spice rack ale” in his notes. As we returned to it repeatedly, opinions repeatedly rose as we settled into its huge blanket of roast, booze and especially spice flavors. One taster gave what we thought was a perfect description in her notes: “Tastes like the burnt, crusty part of the pumpkin pie, but in a good way.” The only more assertive beer we tasted in the entire 45 was the Avery Rumpkin, but that’s to be expected. Pumpkinator, similarly, has nothing subtle about it—you better get ready for some sherry-like booziness and huge spices—but the more you taste it, the more the roast, fruitiness and spice reels you in. By the way: We tasted the bourbon barrel-aged variant of this beer at GABF, and it’s an even more hedonistic experience.
City: Stratford, CT
The verdict: A great beer with a great label and even greater name, we were pleasantly surprised by Roadsmary’s Baby, a well-crafted brew that uses barrel-aging as a subtle enhancement rather than a flavor infusion meant to punch you in the face. A traditional American pumpkin ale spends some time in rum barrels, drawing an honestly hilarious comparison to the Avery beer—these two couldn’t possibly be further apart. Where that one is hugely, impossible massive, Roadsmary’s Baby is among the most drinkable barrel-aged beers you’re ever going to quaff at a Halloween party. Clean and malty with mid-strength pie spices, it seems to have been smoothed and polished by its time in the barrel rather than made more overbearing. Blind-tasting, it’s easy to imagine missing the barrel character altogether, but it weaves its way through the beer with vanilla notes and slightly tropical, warming spices. The day we tasted it, there was no doubt among anyone present that this was the beer we wanted to drink again and again.
City: Stevens Point, WI
The verdict: In the end, we should admit something: Pumpkin beers are about spices. That’s why we drink them, and ultimately that’s how we judge them. And among these 45 beers, the single best, most authentic, and just plain satisfying bouquet of spices in the nose came from Stevens Point, WI in the form of Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale.
It’s simply heavenly-smelling beer, with a blast of fresh spices that feel authentic, like you just ground them yourself in your mortar and pestle—nutmeg, allspice, and especially cinnamon, which has none of the harshness or astringency you sometimes find in that spice. Rather, it’s sweet, fragrant cinnamon—it’s what every cinnamon-scented product ever made is trying to capture, but it never comes off this well.
On the palate, the beer is sweet-forward but stops before it becomes cloying—tasting it blind, some of us originally thought this might be the Schlafly. I’ve tried to limit the number of times in this ranking that I’ve said something actually tastes like “pumpkin pie,” because I’ve been saving that descriptor for this moment—the best words for this beer truly are “pumpkin pie.” Real pumpkin pie, from the graham crackery malt to the warming cinnamon, to the Werthers Original-like caramel to yes—even pumpkin itself. It’s decadent, and it feels like a guilty pleasure; not “artful,” perhaps, but extremely satisfying. It’s seriously impressive beer, and all the more impressive that it came out of the fifth oldest privately owned brewery in the country. Damn good stuff. This is what we’ll drink while passing out Halloween candy this year.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he has a love/hate relationship with pumpkin beer. You can follow him on Twitter.