99 Bottles

The best pumpkin beers of 2013


People love pumpkin beer. Based largely on sales of its flagship Pumpkinhead, Portland, Maine's Shipyard Brewing Co. climbed to No. 15 among craft breweries in sales volume for 2012, according to data released by the Brewers Association. That's a lot of cinnamon-and-sugar rims.

Pumpkin beer can be polarizing. Early release of the brew is an annual cause of consternation (summer's not over!), and hardcore beer geeks deride the beverage for being a too-sweet gimmick. Did we mention Shipyard sells a ton of pumpkin beer?

Shipyard is not alone in selling massive amounts of it. Go into any liquor store over the next six weeks and pumpkin will be everywhere. For the second year in a row, the 99 Bottles family held a massive pumpkin beer tasting to help you sort through the orange muck. In one spicy night this week, myself, my colleague Christopher Hughes, my neighbor Meaghan, and my wife Melissa sampled 16 pumpkin beers and named our bests and worsts. It's a tough job, but we endured all 16 beers so you don't have to. After a totally blind taste test, I list my favorites, as well as the bottom three, below. One of the beers that scored the lowest absolutely shocked us.

The beers we sampled, in order, were Cisco Brewers Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale, Bluepoint Pumpkin Ale, Southern Tier Pumking, Harpoon UFO Pumpkin, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Hoppin' Frog Double Pumpkin, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Cambridge Brewing Company Great Pumpkin Ale, Ithaca Brewing Country Pumpkin, Shipyard Brewing Pumpkinhead, Smuttynose Brewing Pumpkin Ale, Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, Jack-O-Traveler Shandy, Wolaver's Pumpkin Ale, Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, and Fisherman's Imperial Pumpkin Stout.

These were my top six:

1. Wolaver's Pumpkin Ale: The organic brewery out of Middlebury, Vt. came in at the top spot. Wolaver's Pumpkin Ale was supremely well balanced. Pumpkin is present, but it's not in your face. There's a subtle hop overtone that lets you know you're drinking a real ale. My fellow tasters ranked this highly as well. This is exactly what I want in a pumpkin beer.

2. Dogfish Head Punkin. We expected this one to do well, and it didn't disappoint. More spice here than in the previous offering. A citrusy nose gives way to the "right combination of spices," according to Melissa. There's balance here, too, but it's much sweeter, owing to a higher alcohol by volume of 7 percent. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and all spice figure front-and-center.

pumpnotes.jpg3.Hoppin Frog Barrel Aged Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale. Last year I wrote about an existential crisis when tasting pumpkin beer. In a nutshell, the notion of pumpkin beer is undefined; spicy, pie-flavored brews mingle with beers brewed with real pumpkin. Ales and stouts and witbiers can all serve as bases. It's hard to fit them all into a neat category.

Hoppin Frog's Barrel Aged Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale is an entirely different beer than the others. It's inherently complex, aged in whiskey barrels and high in alcohol (8.4 percent). This labor-intensive beer has an unfair advantage over the others, but it's also really good. I get toasted marshmallow, vanilla, and fresh green apple, with a hint of pumpkin. What kind of beer is this? Either way it's delicious.

4. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale. This was by far the most complex and interesting pumpkin beer we tried. I described it as a pumpkin saison. Lemony hops and pie spice combine to form a pithy, dry finish. The ingredients come together well. It's 180 degrees from the last two beers but is well-crafted.

5. Ithaca Beer Company Country Pumpkin. Ithaca is known for brewing one of the best IPAs in the country, Flower Power, so it's no surprise they also brew a hop-forward pumpkin beer that is easy to drink. There's nothing overwhelming about this one, but maybe that's the point. This beer is unoffensive and balanced, a pale ale with a hint of pumpkin that you can keep going back to.

6. Fisherman's Imperial Pumpkin Stout: An entirely different base style but a well-crafted stout. At 11 percent ABV, this one will hunker you down for a night on the high seas. Heavy on chocolate and roasted coffee with a pumpkin pie sweetness, this brew makes for a superb dessert.

The rest, and the bottom: Samuel Adams and Harpoon were among the beers that scored in the middle (the Sam offering had a surprising, smoky blue cheese note that I just can't shake). The Traveler Beer Company's Jack-O Shandy surprised by not being the worst; a pumpkin-lemonade drink wouldn't seem to fit, but the lemon was muted, providing only a slightly unpleasant sweetness while giving the shandy some balance. For the second straight year Southern Tier's Pumking was just awful. A top-note spice, maybe nutmeg, is overpowering and unpleasant.

cbcgreatpumpkin.jpgIn the biggest surprise of the night, Cambridge Brewing's Great Pumpkin Ale scored in the bottom three of the 16 beers we blind-tasted. I typically love CBC's beers. I ranked the Cambridge brewpub as the third-best beer bar in greater Boston due to a consistent lineup of inventive, balanced brews. Great Pumpkin Ale was lacking with all four reviewers. It's not sweet, but a top note of overwhelming cinnamon gives way to a too-light beer with a sour finish. Real pumpkin goes into this beer, which explains the sour gourd taste, but it just didn't work for any of us.

Speaking of overwhelming cinnamon, Shipyard Pumpkinhead scored the worst or second-worst for each of us. It's the Bud Light of pumpkin beer, an overwhelming burst of cinnamon barely concealing a flimsy, unappealing brew. It's by far the best-selling of all these beers, which is a shame. Blue Point Pumpkin Ale also scored very low.

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