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Your Beermonger: Pumpkin Beer Showdown 2012

by ARLnow.com — September 21, 2012 at 1:30 pm 5,547 51 Comments

Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway)

This past weekend I got to try out a slew of this year’s Pumpkin beers and fall seasonals with my wife’s and my friend Chassie Smith, who keeps a blog called Chassie’s Food And TV (guess what it’s about). A self-proclaimed beer novice, Chassie is a fan of just about all things pumpkin and wanted to get a couple different perspectives on the myriad of Pumpkin Ales on the market. To this end, she brought a few beers over, I brought a few from work, and we tasted them all to see what we liked, what we didn’t, and talk a bit about why one beer worked while another didn’t. For those curious, here are full notes and opinions about the beers we tried:

Blue Moon Caramel Apple Spiced Ale: This new seasonal from MillerCoors’ infamous “faux Craft” label uses apple juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and caramel malts to create a brownish Ale that targets both Pumpkin Ale drinkers and cider fans. Despite my feelings about Blue Moon as an idea and a brand, this wasn’t nearly the awful mess I was expecting: in some ways it’s a pleasant enough fall beer, with the spices popping up on the front palate and apples coming through on the finish. The Spiced Ale may show too much focus-group style compromise, though; not beery enough for beer geeks, and not cidery enough for the cider fans.

Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat Ale: Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top line is a response to MillerCoors’ efforts to make consumers think they’re drinking a craft beer with Blue Moon. Shock Top’s Pumpkin Wheat is new for 2012, with pumpkin and spices added to the base Belgian-influenced Wheat Ale. Out of the whole lineup, this was the lightest on the palate and weakest in pumpkin/spice character. As a Belgian Wheat Ale, Shock Top is slightly watery and astringent to begin with; this Pumpkin Wheat variant is simply *blah*.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale: Remember us talking about Pumpkin Ales and other fall seasonals were arriving so early this year? It’s Harvest Moon’s fault. I started seeing this stuff on retailers’ shelves in July this year, as MillerCoors (smartly, from a business sense) played the odds knowing that folks tend to buy the first seasonal beer they see and then stick to that beer throughout that season. As a beer, Harvest Moon is…ok. It’s a perfectly serviceable Pumpkin Ale, if a little watery feeling. On its own Harvest Moon may have been a pleasant surprise; next to the true Craft Beers that came after it, it was exposed for its muted notes and thinner mouthfeel.

Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale: One of the first Pumpkin Ales I fell in love with, Dogfish Head’s seasonal offering went through several variations before seeming to settle in about 3-4 years ago. It had been some time since my last Punkin’, so I was curious to see how it was doing. The Dogfish stands out for its malty character, focused spice, and ‘big’ feel on the palate. Punkin’ Ale isn’t my favorite for the season, but it’s a good beer and deserves its popularity.

Terrapin Pumpkinfest: (Note—this beer is gone for the year) This was a pleasant surprise for me this year. We didn’t see any of this seasonal from Athens, GA last year but got a very short run of it for 2012. Thinking just outside the box as they usually do, the gang at Terrapin couldn’t decide whether to make a Pumpkin Ale or an Oktoberfest, so they made a beer that is both. The Pumpkinfest is a subtly brilliant idea; the Marzen-style Lager is a great base for an easy-drinking, approachable Pumpkin beer that allows for the gourd and spices to show through without using an overwhelming amount of them. Wish there was more of this.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale: For the past few years, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale has been The Daddy when it comes to Pumpkin Ales in our home. A wonderfully balanced big beer, Imperial Pumpkin is darker than the Dogfish Head yet doesn’t come across as being as much of a Brown Ale as Punkin’. The spices are bold but show enough restraint to keep this beer drinkable. Still a go-to after all these years.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale: (Note—this beer is gone for the year) After last fall’s release of Schlafly Pumpkin, I spent the better part of a year telling my wife all about how this was going to be her new favorite Pumpkin Ale. That’s a lot of buildup and a lot of expectation for a beer to live up to, but it only took a few seconds this past weekend for my wife to nod and agree that there was a new #1 Pumpkin Ale in our house. Schlafly’s Pumpkin is cinnamon-heavy and pumpkin pie-esque, and while at 8% ABV it’s in no way a lighter beer it comes across as a more drinkable, less insane version of the venerable Pumking. That’s a winning formula in my book.

Southern Tier Pumking: (Note—currently out of stock at Arrowine, but more is on the way) The big-noise maker; the boldest and most brash of the Pumpkin Ales on the market. Pumpkin pie in a bottle — that’s how Southern Tier broke through and placed their nearly 9% monster in front of an increasingly competitive market segment. The first impression is a tidal wave of graham cracker, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet pumpkin, not unlike pie filling. Pumking is an achievement for sure, an extremely well-thought craft beer that has drawn attention from those who wouldn’t even look to beer otherwise. For me, though, Pumking is a bit of a caricature; a cartoon. Pumking is without a doubt delicious, but to me it’s simply too much; too sweet, too massive, and too heavy to enjoy more than the little bit I had. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I’ll take a more drinkable Schlafly six-pack that I can have two or three of any day of the week. Pumking does need to be experienced to be believed, however.

No matter which fall seasonal is your favorite, I hope you get to have as good a time with as fun a group as I did this weekend. Until next time.

Cheers!

Nick Anderson maintains a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger. Sign up for Arrowine’s money saving email offers and free wine and beer tastings at www.arrowine.com/mailing-list-signup.aspx. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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  • Alex

    My vote is for Southern Tier Pumking! It’s like drinking pumpkin pie.

    • Chris

      …if that pie was distilled into some kind of frightening neon syrup ;)

      My favorite surprises even me – Heavy Seas Great’r Pumpkin. The barrel is apparently what I need to round out pumpkin ales.

      Also – Uinta Punk’n is surprisingly similar to Punkin in name and flavors imo.

      • TheBeermonger

        Great’r Pumpkin is a favorite of mine, too. That beer has no right to make sense but it’s delicious. Hasn’t arrived yet this year, but should be soon.

        • TheBeermonger

          Also, keep an eye out for Frightening Neon Syrup, my alt-electronica indie band coming soon.

  • hoooos

    The best one I have ever had is the Williamsburg Alewerks pumpkin ale. It tastes like a dessert and is 7.3%. I’ve been scouring Arlington trying to find it and haven’t been able to yet…argh!

    • 1

      Rick’s in Alexandria has some, but they are limiting people to 1 sixer apiece.

      • TheBeermonger

        Yeah, I got one case yesterday and it’s already gone. I’m gonna try to get more.

    • http://nationleprechaun.com/ jinushaun

      Bought some this weekend from Westover.

  • veeta

    I’m partial to Post Road pumpkin ale.

  • James

    This conversation starta and ends with the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale. Had it at a tasting a couple years ago and have been disappointed with every other pumpkin beer I’ve tried since. Getting it from the brewery in Easton, Pa is the closest approximation to liquid pumpkin pie there could be.

  • novasteve

    That apple beer sounds good. I wish there were more banana beer options. Do they still even have De Troch banana?

    • malaka

      that beer is the owrse tbeer I have ever tasted….and I’ve tasted a lot

      • malaka

        worst..and no I haven’t had one yet

    • David

      Wells Banana bread beer, gross, but it’s kind of easy to find, http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/664/5488

      For banana flavors, try some Belgium goldens, the yeast esters will impart a banana flavor/aroma depending on the yeast strain. Nick can help you identify those.

    • TheBeermonger

      I don’t know about De Troch, but the Charles Wells Banana Bread Ale is still out there. I don’t carry it because there isn’t a lot of call for it, but I’m as sucker for just about all things banana and I like it. Though I have to say, I did try a Banana Lambic once and it was an offense to the universe.

      • malaka

        That’s the De Troch – and you are not wrong

  • Matty

    Harpoon’s UFO Pumpkin is definitely worth a try. Was much better fresh at the Harpoon Brewery in Boston but still great out of the bottle — and have seen cases in a few local beer stores as well as at Giant.

    • Deadite

      Agreed. Can never go wrong with Harpoon.

  • ER

    Heavy Seas’s the great pumpkin is almost as good as pumking to be honest. The greater pumpkin (bourbon aged great pumpkin) is as good.

  • http://www.dcbroomball.org RS

    This is kind of random, but Saranac’s pumpkin ale has always been a favorite of mine. It’s malty with very little hoppy bitterness and a good, but not overpowering, pumpkin flavor. Always grab a bottle when I see it.

  • SHLady

    I love DFH’s Punkin, but my all time favorite is Post Road Pumpkin from Brooklyn Brewery. I tend to prefer the ones that have a stronger pumpkin flavor and not so much spice.

  • David

    My favorite by far is Schlafly, Last year I was on a mission to try as many as possible, took notes, and Schlafly was a clear winner. I have respect for the Pumking, but it’s too much for me.

    • Sherriff Gonna Getcha

      Amen brother. I scooped 2 6-packs of the Schlafly last week, glad I did cuz they are already gone. So delish.

      • malaka

        I just got a six pack from Clarendon WF so there’s still some out there……having one now in fact…..delish!

  • DCDirtDog

    I highly recommend Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead and Smashed Pumpkin.

    • TheBeermonger

      Never been huge on the Pumpkinhead but Smashed Pumpkin is tasty.

  • BlueSkies

    Tommyknocker’s Small Patch Pumpkin is amazing. It’s made with molasses and is comfort food in a bottle.

  • JamesE

    Note: Pumking will mess you up FAST

    • JamesE

      Also, Saranac Pumpkin is very good, not listed.

    • CW

      It is so awesome…my favorite time of year has arrived…

    • JJ

      Yes it will!

  • John

    Williamsburg Alewerks, without a doubt, has gotta be mentioned in this article! The best pumpkin ale I have had and a VA beer no less.

    • TheBeermonger

      It’s been very limited this year. I’ve only gotten one case at Arrowine and that was yesterday (it’s sold out already). They’ve been very strict about allocating it to folks who buy in on the core brands, and I usually stick to their more special run stuff (Caledonia, Bourbon Barrel Porter, Cafe Royale, etc). I really want to get more though, ’cause I haven’t even had the chance to try it yet.

  • brodies

    While I may be biased (as it was my first pumpkin ale), I’ve always been very in love with New Holland’s Ichabod. It’s a bit heavier on the spice than the pumpkin, but that’s part of its appeal.

    • TheBeermonger

      Agreed. Ichabod is nice.

  • CC Top

    No love for Starr Hill’s Boxcar Pumpkin Porter?

    • Tommy

      +1 Star Hill Pumpkin Porter is great!

      • TheBeermonger

        If I’m honest, I’ve never been a huge Starr Hill guy. There’s a lot of beers from them I’ve yet to try though. Maybe I’ll snag a bottle and check it out.

        • CC Top

          Same here. I just don’t get why people fall over themselves for the Love and a few of the others. I like Boxcar, though, because it’s a porter first and a pumpkin beer second (porter with a hint of pumpkin and spices).

          • TheBeermonger

            The Porter DC Brau made with Epic last year was like that, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

          • Chris

            Starr Hill’s pumpkin is up their with their best stuff. I also like the new Pilsener this year, but otherwise I’d have to generally agree.

          • Chris

            *there

            need coffee

    • Deadite

      +1. I’ve got some Pumpkin Porter in my fridge and I love it. But, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t really love beer because it’s such a heavy, robust brew.

  • WD

    Weyerbacher <333

  • JJ

    Chelsea Brewery’s Pumpkin Pie Ale is a true pumpkin pie beer. Can’t get it down here though.

  • ArlVABeerGuy

    In addition to the above, I highly recommend the Elysian family of pumpkin ales: Night Owl, The Great Pumpkin (an imperial pumpkin ale), and Dark O’ The Moon (a pumpkin stout). They’re currently available in DC and MD; sadly, Elysian doesn’t yet distribute in VA.

    • TheBeermonger

      I know–it’s driving me nuts hearing about all the great Elysian stuff.

  • mike

    Schlafly and weyerbacker are good and heavy on the spices. Terrapin definitely has a different take. Post road, shock top and riverhorse are lowet tier. Hoppin frog also makes a decent brew. Shipward smashing was also decent. My favorite is pumking as nice sipping beer at a tailgate or after dinner. Pumking is best as sharing a bottle with friends and enjoying it. There are so many pumkin beers out there to try. I heard that unita is a great beer, but have not seen in nj yet. Also dogfish is good, but think it was better last year.

  • Deadite

    Am I the only one who absolutely HOARDS pumpkin beers while they’re available, knowing that the breweries will confoundingly roll out the winter ales in mid-October?

  • PumpkinPieLover

    Anyone know where to find Southern Tier Pumking? Both Westover market and Arrowine are sold out.

    • mike

      In nj the pumking resources are almost gone. Since last week i tried unita and new holland. They were decent. Fegley’s was also a decent brew

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