This time of year, it's tempting to buy up the pumpkin beers that are lining the shelves at places like Spec's and D&Q Beer Station. Their seasonal packaging is attractive, as is the idea that even the least beer-focused consumer would enjoy a pint of something that tastes like pumpkin pie in a glass. But if you ask Spec's beer department manager Joey Williams, pumpkin beers are best left on the shelf.
It's not that he doesn't like the idea of pumpkin beers, Williams says. "All you can generally taste is pumpkin pie spice," and that cinnamon-clove-nutmeg profile can quickly become overwhelming. But that doesn't mean Williams won't recommend a bottle or two if you ask him.
"I may not like pumpkin beers, Christmas beers, or any other of the noticeably spiced concoctions soon to be coming our way," Williams wrote in a Spec's newsletter from August, "but I will be the last to say they don't have a place." He goes on to detail the history of pumpkin beer in America, which actually used to be brewed from pumpkins and not much else. That soft, sweet, squash flavor is hard to find in today's pumpkin beers—but not impossible.
I had Williams pick four bottles of pumpkin beer—Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, Uinta Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Alaskan Brewing Pumpkin Porter, and a one-year-old bottle of Krunkin Pumpkin (to gauge how pumpkin beers age)—and assembled a crack team of beer tasters to see if we could find at least one that was worth indulging in for the season. The tasters came from every point on the beer spectrum, since many people buying and drinking pumpkin beers aren't necessarily your daily beer snobs.
Ali describes herself as "more into cocktails and bubbly." Of beer, she says: "It has alcohol in it."
Fayza describes herself as someone who "started drinking beer as a sorority girl, but I've graduated beyond that." She's "a bit of a beer snob" in that she bases "everything beer-wise off Shiner. Shiner to me is a great staple; if there's Shiner, there's a saving grace." She admits, however, that she doesn't know what terms like IPA mean.
Brandi, who spends nearly every Sunday at The Hay Merchant, also claims Shiner as her saving grace. "I know enough to be dangerous," she says. "I can describe what I like, what I don't like, I'm not too good at knowing current trends or brands, but I have found that I like supporting Texas beers. Their shit is really good."
Tucker is a homebrewer and the only person I know in possession of a bottle of Westvleteren 12, the famed Belgian beer created by monks at the remote Abbey of Saint Sixtus. You must receive a special dispensation from the monks to purchase the beer; it has been called the rarest in the world. Despite this, Tucker says only: "I like beer...for the sake of beer." He also has a soft spot for Shiner, the first beer he had after being straight-edge for five years. "How can I say no to my grandmother offering me a beer after a hurricane when we have no power?" Tucker says that after his first Shiner, he "got introduced to good beer and never looked back."
We sat around my dining room table and popped open each of the four beers Williams picked out, starting with the mildest and building up to the stronger ones.
Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale
Best known for big, bold brews such as Dead Guy Ale and Voodoo Bacon Maple Ale, Rogue describes its Pumpkin Patch Ale as "made using fresh pumpkins grown in a patch that borders Rogue’s 42 acre hop yard." The pumpkins are roasted and pitched into the brew kettle along with Freedom hops and Pacman yeast. The Pumpkin Patch Ale we tried poured an amber-hued golden color with very little head. Pumpkin Patch Ale sells at Spec's for $10.31 for a 22-ounce bottle. The tasting notes are as follows:
B: Up close it smells terrible. It's a lot lighter than I thought it would be.
A: It doesn't taste any different to me than regular beer.
F: It tastes like Bud Light. It tastes bland to me. But will it get me drunk? Yes it will. If someone gave this to you and you didn't know it was a pumpkin beer, would you realize it was? No.
T: It tastes like real pumpkin and hops. And water. It's just really light and mildly pumpkin-y. It kind of builds on you.
F: The more you drink it the better it tastes.
K: Really subtle spices, but mostly hops and vague pumpkin-y flavor.
Verdict: Would order again, but mostly because it's patently inoffensive.
Alaskan Brewing Pumpkin Porter
Alaskan Brewing, based in Juneau, adds 11 pounds of pumpkin its Pumpkin Porter, which is then brewed with "brown sugar, holiday spices, and a scoche of Alaskan’s famous alder-smoked malt." Alaskan describes the result as "reminiscent of grandma’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie." The Pumpkin Porter is a new release for Alaskan this year, although we're thinking the bottle either didn't travel well or perhaps should have simply stayed put in Juneau. It poured a dark, rich mahogany with a thin but creamy head. Pumpkin Porter sells at Spec's for $9.46 for a 22-ounce bottle.
B: It's like they had a really bad beer and tried to make it better with cinnamon. This is terrible. Just terrible.
T: It's like a grandma who can't cook tried to make a pumpkin pie.
F: It tastes peaty and smoky. It's smoky in a stale smoky way. This is a non-finisher. I'd be so disappointed if I bought this.
T: ...you can kind of taste the brown sugar in it?
A: I thought it was okay. Maybe they don't have pumpkins up in Alaska.
B: Yeah, those assholes don't know what they're doing.
K: It almost tastes oxidized. There's a staleness, a wet cardboard taste. That smoky, peaty taste does not play well with the pumpkin pie spices.
Verdict: Our least favorite of the four, and the beer which almost everyone poured into the dump bucket after only a few sips.
Uinta Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale
This Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Uinta, in Salt Lake City, is part of the brewery's Crooked Line series. Most pumpkin beers are, in fact, part of their particular brewery's fill-in-the-blank-here series. No one brews pumpkin beer on a regular basis, which could explain why this seasonal brew is so tough to get right. Uinta also brews a Punk'n ale, but this Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale is aged in oak barrels and has a considerably higher ABV than most other pumpkin beers at 10.3 percent. It poured an amber color with a surprisingly thick head. Oak Jacked sells at Spec's for $13.67 for a 750-milliliter bottle.
T: It smells sweet and boozy. You can really smell the bourbon. The barrel definitely overpowers any trace of pumpkin. I taste a lot of bourbon, a little bit of spice, and a teeny bit of pumpkin.
F: I don't taste any pumpkin in this at all. But this one's not bad. It's a little hoppier than I would like. I don't know if I'm using the words right because I only have sorority-level knowledge of beer. But I know it's not Natty Light. This one feels like fall, I suppose. It's the right amount of heaviness so I feel like it would warm you up...
T: ...but it's not as heavy as the dead of winter.
F: Yeah, in the fall, you don't drink as fast. This is a conversation beer.
B: The aftertaste reminds me of my dog's breath. Healthy teenage dog breath after she drank a bowl of tap water. (Ed. note: Brandi assures me this was a compliment.)
A: It just tastes like beer to me. I can taste the bourbon...and that's about it.
K: It reminds me vaguely of a barleywine. Really boozy, sort of sweet, sharp.
T: Yeah, it's definitely got the ABV for that. Had I never had it, I'd order it. I'd still order it if I couldn't find anything better—at least the name is intriguing.
Verdict: I hate barleywine, so my opinion on this is rendered rather moot. Everyone else liked it enough to drink their entire glass, but not necessarily enough to buy again.
Karbach Brewing Co. Krunkin Pumpkin
Karbach has only been brewing beer for roughly two years, which makes its Krunkin Pumpkin all the more outstanding considering its youth. The bottle we got from Williams had been aged a year, to determine how pumpkin stands up to cellaring. Beer nerds in Houston eagerly awaited the release of Krunkin Pumpkin this year, just as they've done for Saint Arnold's Pumpkinator (formerly known as Divine Reserve No. 9), and tend to cellar/store both—but that's where the similarities between the two Houston breweries' pumpkin beers end.
Saint Arnold Pumpkinator is an Imperial Stout, heavy on the pumpkin pie spices and heavy in general, thick and almost syrupy and with a strong coffee undercurrent. Krunkin Pumpkin is an ale, light-bodied and nimble and fresh-tasting. Together, they're two of the strongest pumpkin beers on the market, and they're both from the Bayou City. Krunkin Pumpkin sells at Spec's for $9.46 for a 22-ounce bottle.
F: This smells like the inside of a pumpkin pie! This one you don't have to struggle through. I like this one. It really does taste like pumpkin pie in your mouth!
A: I might finish this one!
B: I feel like I can't do a keg stand with any of them, but I could drink this with a side of cranberry and stuffing. It's really good. I like it.
T: It definitely ages well.
K: You really taste pumpkin on this one. It's fresh and bright. It tastes like it was just brewed. I can't believe the pumpkin didn't fall out. The spices have really mellowed, but they're still there too.
T: It's definitely the best out of the four.
F: It's not just the best, it's the best best.
Verdict: Not only is Krunkin Pumpkin delicious fresh, it turns out that it's equally outstanding aged for a year—so if you are storing some from last year, now's a great time to pull it out of your cellar.