I was, up until my pumpkin ale tasting, ashamed to admit I had never tried a pumpkin ale before. Then I began sipping, tasting, downing, gulping, smelling, and savoring a collection of various breweries’ attempts at this seasonal favorite. Now I kind of wish I never tried them. If you think I am saying that because I am now hopelessly addicted to pumpkin ales, you are very wrong.
After trying half a dozen or so pumpkin ales, I came to the conclusion that pumpkin ales are bland, uninspiring, weak ales that might as well be an American adjunct lager—think Bud Light.
Could it be that perhaps I just happened to find the worst that exist? I chose those because they were readily available at H-E-B, a store that is everywhere and yet still manages to stock an impressive collection of brews. I couldn’t shake that I somehow stumbled on a horrible coincidence by picking the worst out there, so I tried more. All the same.
While some managed to carry a pumpkin spice scent—titillating the senses and giving me a brief moment of hope—when it came to tasting, most fell flat.
Then, by pure chance, I found myself as the lone food writer amongst a dozen of Texas’s best chefs at an after party for the recent Sweet & Savory Benefit Dinner for Lucky Dog. And after finding out the hard way that there is one question you should never ask a chef—“What is the most overrated restaurant in Houston?” (the responses ranged from “you might as well have asked me my favorite tool to use” to “never step foot in my restaurant again”)—I quickly tried to change the subject. Pumpkin ales came up.
One of the few chefs still talking to me reached deep inside what seemed to be a neverending fridge of abstract ales and lagers. She then pulled out a fairly common one—Saint Arnold Pumpkinator. She poured a glass. Good head, beautiful color—the first pumpkin ale that didn’t mirror the nearly-clear big-name lagers—and a distinctive pumpkin pie smell. I was told to let it rest. So I waited and listened to a lecture on the history of this ale, a brew that started as Saint Arnold’s Divine Reserve No. 9 and was so popular it was eventually brewed and bottled on an annual basis as a complement of sorts to Saint Arnold's other fall beer, Oktoberfest.
Then I finally tasted my first Pumpkinator. This spicy, hoppy beer actually tastes like the spices that make pumpkin-flavored anything taste like autumn. This beer tastes like a gingerbread cookie. It’s actually good. With a sort of rushed excitement, I told the chefs of my disappointing search for a good pumpkin ale. And as quickly as I shared my story, I was again scolded—this time for not starting with Houston’s oldest craft brewery in the first place.
Don’t do what I did. If you’re looking for a good pumpkin ale, go straight for the best: Saint Arnold Pumpkinator.