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Beer: The good, the bad and the pumpkin

Pumpkin has a subtle flavor. If you describe something as very pumpkiny, be it a muffin, a bread or a soup, chances are you’re tasting something else.

For fans of pumpkin beer, it’s the spices (most frequently cinnamon and nutmeg) that remind them of mom’s homemade pies and set their mouths watering. Pumpkin adds some fermentable material to the beer and maybe a little mouthfeel and sweetness, but not much else.

I’ve always found spiced beers interesting to taste but a bit too cloying to buy by the sixpack. Fritz Hahn, the Post’s bars and clubs editor, came to my rescue by inviting me to a blind tasting of six pumpkin beers on the Post’s rooftop garden last Thursday.

Sample one, Post Road Pumpkin Ale from the Brooklyn Brewery in New York City, was fairly dry for this style, with a thin body and a faintly metallic aftertaste. It seemed a halfhearted effort from brewers who would rather be making an IPA. Interestingly the web site states nothing about spices in this beer, although it does list Belgian biscuit and aromatic malts as ingredients.

Pumpkinhead Ale from Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, Me. was a major improvement, balancing the malt and spices superbly. It was refreshing enough that I might be tempted to order a liter stein of this beer to celebrate the harvest in the absence of a good Oktoberfest lager. The label shows the headless horseman with jack o’lantern where his noggin used to be. The brewery web site offers some cool-looking logo glassware and shirts, but unfortunately, few details on the beer itself.

Sample three provided a rich, sweet, smooth palate and a hint of alcoholic warmth in the back of the throat. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, the Delaware brewery’s most popular seasonal, contains brown sugar and other spices and measures a hefty 7 percent alcohol by volume. The brand’s nonstandard spelling is an homage to the First State’s annual Punkin Chunkin competition, where contestants build high-tech catapults to see who can hurl a pumpkin the farthest into the stratosphere.

Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale, from Blue Moon Brewing Co., a division of MillerCoors, came off a bit underwhelming in Punkin Ale’s wake. The customary spices were nearly missing in action, but the deep copper color was striking and there was a slight toastiness that added some depth to the beer.

Sample #5, Ichabod from New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Mich., appeared to have a bite to it, which I interpreted as ginger, but the web site lists only cinnamon and nutmeg among the ingredients. I found it pleasant, but a little thin for the intensity of the spicing. It would perhaps be a better beer for cooking than quaffing; the web site actually includes a recipe for a chicken satay peanut sauce.

The tasting’s cleanup hitter was Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, Pa. In spite of its 8 percent alcohol by volume, there was no “hot” taste from the higher alcohol content. It did have a rich, caramel malt sweetness and a blast of spices (the brewery uses cardamom and clove in addition to cinnamon and nutmeg). Definitely a slow sipping beer; I’m not sure whether the sugar content or the alcohol would slow you down first.

This list is far from exhaustive. If you crave something a little darker and roastier, try Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout from Cape Ann Brewing Co. in Gloucester, Mass., spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

Boston Beer Co. has caved in to popular demand and released Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and a touch of smoked malt. That one is available only in the Harvest Collection Variety Pack.

At Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore, Hugh Sisson will age a small portion of his Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale in bourbon barrels to produce a limited-release, 9 percent alcohol-by-volume Great’er Pumpkin Ale.

From Green Mountain Beverage Co. in Middlebury, Vt., comes what’s probably sui generis: Woodchuck Private Reserve Pumpkin Cider, which is fermented from apples in the usual manner but has mashed pumpkin (“from the pumpkin patch of an employee who lives 10 miels away,” says president Bret Williams) added during and after fermentation. A pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg goes in there too. This limited seasonal release should appear shortly in a handful of cities, including Baltimore and Washington.

Occasionally, I’ll walk into a well-stocked retail store and count more pumpkin beers than Oktoberfests. As Charlie Brown would say, Good grief!

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | September 21, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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