Drinking pumpkin beer shouldn't be the cause of an existential crisis, but that was the position my wife, our two friends, and myself found ourselves in this week when tasting beer for this story. As we sampled an admittedly ambitious lineup of 12 pumpkin beers, we found ourselves asking, "What's a pumpkin beer supposed to taste like?"
None of the 12 beers tasted alike. In some cases, a beer tasted like it belonged to a totally different style. Stringing together commonalities between beers not only proved difficult but at times seemed misguided. These beers weren't made to taste like one another.
So what's a pumpkin beer? Is it a beer that tastes like pumpkins, the vegetable? Is it a beer with pumpkin-pie spices like cinnamon and nutmeg? A beer that fits into your festive notions of Halloween? (or is it Thanksgiving?) We were overthinking things, of course, but our intentions were good. It's hard to judge a bunch of pumpkin beers if you can't agree on what a pumpkin beer is.
Fear not, pumpkin drinkers, we were still able to draw plenty of conclusions on the beers we sampled, and we came up with our favorites. Hopefully this can serve as a guide for pumpkin beer fans as the fall beer season continues. Because many different styles were represented here we didn't rank the beers, but we've identified the best of the bunch as beers you should be seeking out. I'll review the beers in the order we tasted them.
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin: An intensified version of Shipyard's flagship beer, Smashed Pumpkin weighs in at a whopping 9 percent ABV. This is a special beer to drink on special occasions; there's a subtle sweetness but it's not cloying, nor is it too spicy. The high alcohol content is hidden well. My wife said it tastes like pumpkin cookies. This is what Shipyard's pumpkin beer should be. Exceptional.
Cambridge Brewing Company Great Pumpkin Ale: Two beers in and the existential crisis begins. CBC, one of the best brewpubs in the country, offers a pumpkin beer that tastes like real pumpkins. The spices are subtle and the finish of the beer is dry. I liked this beer very much, but one of my friends wanted a bit more oomph. At about half the ABV of the previous offering, this was a big contrast. Seek this out.
Southern Tier "Pumking": Back to the opposite end of the spectrum. All sorts of sweet and spice up in here. The cinnamon overwhelms this beer; my friend compared it to drinking a bottle of perfume. And yet after all that sweetness, there's a sour gourd aftertaste, undoubtedly from real pumpkins but unwelcome nonetheless. We had high hopes for this beer that weren't met.
Southampton Pumpkin Ale: Finally some balance. There's a nice, pumpkin-y sour smell to this beer that blends with delicious pie spices. The balance is in the flavor as well. Spice hits you up front and also lingers throughout, preventing the pumpkin flavor from overpowering. The more you sip, the better this beer becomes. As we went on through the tasting, we found nothing better. Exceptional.
Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale: Shipyard makes a lot of this beer, and we were curious to try it in the context of others. After taking one sip my friend Kevin said, "It tastes like someone dumped cinnamon in a glass." We were all in agreement. Waves of cinnamon hit you, and then nothing. The finish is thin. We didn't get any pumpkin notes, nor did we find the beer to be particularly sweet. This was a letdown.
Cisco Brewing Pumple Drumkin: In a blind taste test you wouldn't know this was a pumpkin beer. Both pumpkin and pumpkin spice are in there somewhere, but not at the forefront. My friend Courtney, a Cisco aficionado, said it's been more pumpkin-y in years past. All of that being said, I really liked this beer. Very drinkable. Seek this out.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale: Around and round we go. Tons of pumpkin and pumpkin spice here, syrupy mouthfeel (7 percent ABV), and all the bells and whistles you expect from a Dogfish Head beer. I found this to be too sweet, but it depends on what you're looking for. If you want a substantial pumpkin beer, this is one of the better ones. Seek this out
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin: Light on the aroma and spice, Harpoon combines pumpkin with the drinkability of a wheat beer. It works well, if that's what you're in the mood for. You could drink more than one of these and not feel like you downed a whole pumpkin pie. Not the best beer we tasted, but far from the worst.
Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale: Brewed in California, I was able to find this beer in Boston. It travels well. On the sweeter end of the spectrum, the beer is balanced and full-bodied. I get some nice caramel malt in addition to spice. It's good but unremarkable.
Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale: I reviewed another Samuel Adams pumpkin offering, Fat Jack, earlier in the season, and that beer is the better of the two. Harvest pumpkin is still a good beer, but it seems to be brewed for the Shipyard crowd. Too much nutmeg overpowers the brew. Again, not the best beer we tasted, but not the worst.
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale: By now we were all experiencing pumpkin beer fatigue. Along comes Smuttynose to shake things up. The first aroma wafting up from this beer is of citrusy hops. Indeed the beer tastes a lot like an IPA, with some pumpkin and spice added in. It's a very good beer, but it might not be a pumpkin beer.
Uinta Punk'n Harvest Pumpkin Ale: This is the closest to real-pumpkin taste we found. The beer smells like hay. It tastes vegetal, with hints of honey and other spices. This was my favorite beer (not everyone's), and not just because we drank it last. A total departure from the others and a welcome one at that. Exceptional.
A couple of things to note: I'm an idiot and took the official pumpkin beer lineup photo above with the Harpoon still in the fridge. My job is difficult I swear. After tweeting out the photo of said lineup, I also received suggestions to include pumpkin offerings from Weyerbacher and Post Road, as well as a few pumpkin stouts. I've had both of those beers and like them very much, and you should seek them out. I kept the stouts out of this so we could compare pumpkins to pumpkins, in a manner of speaking.