Pumpkin beer is a harbinger of the fall season, and with the micro- and nano-brewery boom in the last 5-10 years, there are a ton of different brands to choose from. I have been ambivalent about pumpkin beers in the past, my impressions ranging from “meh” to “ew this is disgusting”, but I knew there had to be at least one type out there that could be a trusty go-to during this season. As a public service, only out of my concern for your beer-drinking welfare, I sampled about ten different types and brands, and wrote about them so maybe you can find a great pumpkin beer to match your tastes, too.
In this post, I’m going to cover the first six of the beers I sampled, which were all ales. I’ve listed them in descending order according to my preference with brief descriptions below.
Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale (2016)
Pictured at the top of this post is my favorite of all the pumpkin beers, Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale. Every year the brewery changes the artwork on the label and tweaks the recipe slightly, but it has remained massively popular since the early 2000s. The pour is deep gold, and the scent is spiced without being too sweet. The flavor is the same: notes of nutmeg and yes, actual pumpkin. It doesn’t veer into the territory of drinkable pumpkin pie, which is where pumpkin beers usually lose me. As with most Dogfish Head beers, the carbonation is right on and complements the full-bodied taste. While the Punkin Ale, at 7% ABV, is a little heavy for drinking multiples, it stood out for being crisp. I would not hesitate to be seen drinking one in August, is what I am saying. It’s only brewed through November, so I’m going to make the most of the next month or two with this great beer!
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
The Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale has a flavor that is as close as possible to real pumpkin, while still tasting pretty good in beer-form. The flavor is bitter, but that somehow makes the pumpkin taste more authentic. The scent of the beer is not sweet, but it’s not spice-forward either, so it had one of the least distinctive scents of the beers I sampled. I picked up on a bit of cinnamon playing second fiddle to the harvest flavor. This Smuttynose offering is earthy, and lightness made it refreshing to drink at a 5.84% ABV.
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
This beer was raved about on just about every listicle, beer review blog, and messageboard I came across. It is the heaviest of the ales I sampled, clocking in at 8% ABV. The pour was amber-gold, and had a very sweet smell. After a first few sips, where a sweet, almost cider-like fruit flavor stood out, it faded to a pleasant blend of classic pumpkin spices. I thought this beer was excellent on the tongue and would be perfect for just about any beer-drinking occasion: with or without food, during chilly nights or the peak of the day, for people who love pumpkin beer and people who are agnostic. Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale is a great example of the style, and while it did not knock me out, it is a great option with its balance and classic pumpkin ale flavors.
New Belgium’s Pumpkick
New Belgium’s offering is one of the more interesting beers I have ever tasted. Through pouring, sniffing, and sipping, all I could think was “apple pie”. The spice combination is heavy on cinnamon and allspice, and the aftertaste has strong citrus notes. The beer is very sweet, but the tart citrus prevents it from being cloying, and I could see a lot of people enjoying this as a dessert beer especially. For all the “apple pie in a bottle” talk, it was actually very distinct from a cider. At 6% ABV, the color of the Pumpkick was on the lighter end of the spectrum, and it was bubbly and well carbonated enough to be refreshing. While I enjoyed drinking this beer, it’s hard to see where pumpkin plays a role, which is kind of a requirement for pumpkin ale. But I appreciated it for what it is.
Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Blue Moon’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale was an afterthought in the cart as I was pumpkin beer shopping. I like Blue Moon well enough, but I didn’t have high expectations for their limited release Harvest Pumpkin Ale. My notes are littered with words like “unoffensive” and “not memorable”, but that doesn’t make it a bad beer. With a bit of a molasses flavor alongside malt and classic pumpkin spices, it is decently sweet and easy to drink. The Harvest Pumpkin Ale has a 5.7% ABV, as well as a light amber pour and good carbonation. It is one of the more widely-available of the beers I sampled, and is a good option if you’re faced with a wall of what you know to be bad pumpkin beers.
Devil’s Backbone Pumpkin Hunter
Well, there had to be one I didn’t enjoy. The smell of Devil’s Backbone is, in a word, gross. It’s almost medicinal, and brings to mind a lot of the things that have turned me off about pumpkin beers in the past. Upon first sip, I was overwhelmed by a syrupy texture that was not well-matched with a buttery aftertaste. The result was too rich and pretty far from refreshing. The flavor itself was not bad, though, with a good spice profile and even a hint of actual pumpkin. One of my beer-drinking companions noted that it tasted a lot like Newcastle Brown, but with a few cinnamon and clove notes. I was surprised at its 5.1% ABV, because it took forever to make it through the bottle. The Pumpkin Hunter is not my type of beer, but if you’re really into Newcastle Brown and heavier textures, it may be yours!
This wraps up my review of pumpkin ales. Next week I’m going to tackle some of the interesting pumpkin beers of different styles, like IPAs and Imperial Ales. They really are a whole different ballgame, with MUCH high ABV and some unique profiles that just could not be replicated in a basic ale. If you have a favorite pumpkin ale I didn’t write about, let me know in the comments!