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Posted at 1:37 PM ET, 10/ 1/2010

Taste Test: Pumpkin beers

By Fritz Hahn

Your winner for best overall pumpkin beer and best pumpkin beer artwork: Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale. (Weyerbacher Brewing Company)

It's time to face facts: Even though the 90-degree days lingered into the end of September, summer is gone and fall is here. And few foods say "fall" the way pumpkins do, whether we're carving faces into them, turning them into pie or enjoying them in our beer.

Yes, beer. Pumpkin beers have come a long way since we first tasted those fizzy orange lagers that tasted more like artificial pumpkin filling than actual fruit, and aficionados now seek out spiced pumpkin ales instead of treating them like a novelty that happens to come around during Oktoberfest season.

So when it came time to host the next beer taste test on the Going Out Gurus Blog -- see our previous posts about Caribbean beers and cheap canned beer -- I decided that all the beers would involve pumpkin.

The tasters weren't told that, however. This was a blind test, with two groups of tasters sampling beer in unmarked cups. They rated six beers on a scale of 1 to 5 based on their overall flavor, and again on the same scale while evaluating whether the beer was "evocative of fall." One group consisted of Going Out Gurus, Weekend section staffers and Food section beer scribe Greg Kitsock; the other was a group of my friends that included beer novices, hop heads and an accredited sommelier from one of D.C.'s finest restaurants. The only requirement was that the beer had to be purchased in a four-pack or six-pack in a local liquor store.

In terms of flavor, it was a much tighter race than any of our previous taste tests; we ended up with a three-way tie for first place in the category of "Best Tasting Beer." (One of the testers -- a scientist -- proved that she could use "standard error of the mean" to show that more testers rated one of the three beers higher. The rest of us nodded and pretended to understand.) To get the final rankings, we added each beer's average ratings for flavor and whether it evoked fall.

Read the conclusions -- and tasters' comments -- after the jump.

Winner: Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Overall score: 6.97 (Average Taste: 3.47; Average Fall Ranking: 3.5)
The strongest beer overall, Weyerbacher's wonderfully rich, sweet and slightly hoppy flavor -- pepped up with nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves -- topped both the "Best Flavor" and "Most Evocative of Fall" categories. "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!," wrote one taster. Another called it "like Thanksgiving. It's full of flavor, but easy to drink despite the full flavor." Our sommelier found "pumpkin, charred firewood -- it tastes like a bourbon old-fashioned made with Jerry Thomas bitters," which isn't the way most people would describe a pumpkin beer. Other tasters thought it was too much. "A little too overwhelming -- the apricot/fruity aftertaste lingers for far too long," said one. "Smell is too perfumey."

One taster, who gave the beer her highest overall rating, summed it up: "This is the sort of over-spiced, sweet beer that makes pumpkin beer seem girly. Also, I love it."

Runner Up: New Holland Ichabod
Overall score: 6.91 (Taste: 3.47; Fall: 3.44)
New Holland's Ichabod has always been a Goldilocks-style pumpkin beer -- not too sweet, not too spicy, not too rich -- and the tasters thought it hit the mark. "I like big, hoppy beers, and this is a nice balance of fall flavors and hops," said one taster. "Too many fall seasonals are overly spicy and sweet." Most participants correctly mentioned the beer's cinnamon and nutmeg spice in their comments, calling the blend "smooth and subtle," "flowery, but not overpowering" and even showing a little dislike for the "cologne-like spice," though they seemed to agree that it "finishes smooth despite the strong taste."

Compared to the other beers, wrote one, Ichabod has "more body, more hops, more nutmeg. All the pieces are here."

Third Place: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Overall score: 6.8 (Taste: 3.47; Fall: 3.33)
If you read only the comments that tasters submitted, you'd think Mystery Beer #3 -- Dogfish Head's smooth, pumpkiny Punkin was the overall winner. "Loads of flavor, with a great color," said one. "Spice is balanced against hoppiness." "Very spicy, smooth and more subtle than others," wrote another. Still another wrote, "Hoppy and full-bodied. Not overwhelmingly pumpkin, but you get a good balance of fall flavor."

So where did Dogfish lose points? It's hard to tell -- maybe the beer was just too big, at 7 percent alcohol. "Spicy and tasty, but I couldn't have more than one," was the typical verdict. "It's hoppy, with pumpkin but no other spice." The verdict from our sommelier: "artificial pumpkin pie filling and graham crackers."

Two of the tasters who considered themselves the biggest beer connoisseurs rated Dogfish the highest. "A full palate of spices that might overwhelm a novice but will reveal a bounty of flavors to seasonal beer fans," wrote one, somewhat haughtily. Another said, "While I occasionally like the super-spiced pie-tasting beers, this is what I think a fall beer should taste like."

Fourth Place: Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
Overall score: 5.82 (Taste: 2.52; Fall: 3.3)
Pumpkinhead Ale from Maine's Shipyard Brewing Company was easily the most divisive beer we tried. Some (including me) thought the beer struck a great balance between malt, hops, pumpkin flavor and cinnamon and nutmeg spices. Others weren't so sure. "Nice and pumpkiny with a good bit of spice," said one. "The cinnamon is really prominent in the nose, but it's nice that you can taste hops and yeast as well as pumpkin," said another. One easy answer: "Smells yummy! Tastes yummy, too!" Others, though, called Pumpkinhead "sweet, desserty -- more Halloween than Thanksgiving." Some compared it to food: "Reminds me of the cinnamon apples at Florida Avenue Grill" or "Cinnamon Toast Crunch!" while others thought it was a little too fragrant. "Apples and cinnamon -- I'm thinking Yankee Candle Company on this one."

Fifth Place: Post Road Pumpkin Ale
Overall score: 5.73 (Taste: 2.79; Fall: 2.94)
Some tasters really enjoyed Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale -- "Crisp and light like dry leaves underfoot," "Good fall flavors ... of pumpkin custard and burnt cinnamon" -- but most thought the dry taste could use something more. "Lots of fall spice aroma but not much substance in the body," said one, picking out gingerbread but saying, "It could use more pumpkin." Another added, "Nice scent, but once I started drinking it, the spices tasted like Blue Moon." One succinctly summed it up: "It's easy to drink, but there's not much going on."

Last Place: Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale
Overall score: (Taste: 2.42; Fall: 2.11)
Against such full-bodied competition, Blue Moon's watery, faintly pumpkin flavor didn't really stand a chance -- even with people who found the spices in Dogfish Head and Ichabod overwhelming. "This is a fall beer, right?" joked one. "It's flavorless." Another found "no taste of taste of spice or fruit. Nothing," and still another said Harvest Moon was "too fizzy" with a "weird aftertaste." But it wasn't all bad, I think: "Nice hint of cider but is clearly still a beer," claimed one, while another taster called it "the best session beer" of the lineup because of its low alcohol content.

Final note: Beers that weren't included in the survey but are well worth trying when you see them in your local bar include Schlafly's Pumpkin Ale, a full-bodied treat that I am willing to bet would have been one of the top two beers if it had been included, and the rich and flavorful Jacques au Lanterne, from Delaware's tiny Evolution Brewing Company, which has popped up at a few places around town, including Meridian Pint.

-- Fritz Hahn

By Fritz Hahn  | October 1, 2010; 1:37 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Not a beer, but has anyone found Pumpkin Woodchuck hard cider anywhere?

Posted by: alizadk | October 1, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I looked for some yesterday at Traders Joe's. Maybe the Brickskeller has it or at least knows if Woodchuck makes one.

I am looking for a recipe that was published in the post a while ago (between Oct. 2008- Nov. 2009) for a crusty loaf of bread (not the cake-like pumpkin bread) made with pumpkin ale. If I am not mistaken it called for Dogfish Punking Ale. If anyone has it I would greatly appreciate you sending it by way. I can't locate it in the archives.

Posted by: MMG4 | October 7, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

@ alizadk -
After trying the pumpkin woodchuck at the Oktoberfest in Shirlington, I e-mailed Woodchuck to find out the same thing. Here is where they said to look:

Cleveland Park Liquors DC
Cairo Liquors DC
Rodman's DC
Chevy Chase Liquors DC
Magruder's DC
Leesburg Vintnors Leesburg VA
Virgina Wine Experience Fredericksburg VA
Murphy Beverage Winchester VA

Rick's Alexandria VA - I bought the last of their stock earlier this week

Westover Market Arlington VA - They were sold out

I also found a few bottles of it at Total Wine on Little River Turnpike.

Good luck!

Posted by: fraumickey | October 7, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

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