Pumpkin beer is a seasonally ubiquitous enigma.
“A lot of people just say that term and think it’s one thing, but you have so many different factors going on,” Ryan Daley, Master Cicerone, educator for the High End and host of the “Thinking Beer” video series by Anheuser-Busch, says. Such factors include the base beer style (amber ale, porter, or imperial stout); the form of pumpkin being used (raw, roasted, juice, puree, etc.); when the pumpkin is added during the brewing process; and whether, when, and what spices are added.
Love it or hate it, the seasonal beer style that’s inspired as many “best of” listicles as it has angry think pieces is here to stay — at least for now. To get a feel for this year’s crop, VinePair popped dozens of bottles for our tasting panel across three separate tastings. Much in the way of summer’s rosé glut, our panelists found a majority of the options underwhelming.
Here’s our guide to tasting pumpkin beers, along with five to try.
What is a pumpkin beer?
A pumpkin beer is traditionally an ale made with pumpkin and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and vanilla. Despite the pie-centric ingredients, a good pumpkin beer should finish dry rather than sweet, due to the fermentable sugars from the pumpkin. However, in modern times, many pumpkin beers have taken a turn toward sweetness and are close to becoming dessert themselves. They also range in color and body, from a clear, light amber or copper ale to an opaque, viscous imperial stout.
How is pumpkin beer made?
As with many historical beer styles, pumpkin beer-making methods vary. The pumpkin can enter the equation in different ways: as pumpkin puree; cubed and macerated raw; baked, and stripped of seeds, stems, and skin, then macerated; or pressed like apples to use only the juice. The pumpkin can either be added to the mash with the grains, where more sugars will be extracted; to the kettle, where the gourd will boil as part of the wort; or during fermentation, akin to dry-hopping.
Grains can include a combination of pale, pilsner, Munich, and caramel malts. Hops typically take a back seat, with English or American varietals used for bittering. The spices are often added to the kettle in a mesh bag or cheesecloth and steeped like tea; otherwise, they’re added to the fermenter.
What does pumpkin beer taste like?
Pumpkin ales vary. The category includes subtle, dry, and earthy brews, as well as sweet and creamy pumpkin pie beers, like Schlafly Pumpkin Ale. Some can be toasty and roasty, like Odyssey Beerwerks Fluffy Pumpkin. Many pumpkin ales are barrel-aged, and rum barrels lend to the style’s sweet molasses flavors. Some have additional adjuncts, like coffee. A few brewers even take pumpkin beer to puckering new heights of acidity and complexity with wild yeasts and bacteria.
Why do people love pumpkin beer so much?
Two parts nostalgia, three parts American pride, and a lot of parts marketing. Oh, and because they taste like pie. Daley thinks the “sensory aspect of the seasonal changes” plays a part in pumpkin beers’ appeal.
“As you start to get into the fall months, and the weather starts to cool down and the leaves are changing, you start looking for foods that are a little more hearty and a little bit more warming,” Daley says, adding, “You start looking out for the same thing with beer.”
Those pie-like flavors definitely play a part, though. “At a very basic level, I think people probably just like some of those very pronounced spice characteristics,” he says.
Wait. Why do people hate pumpkin beer so much?
For many pumpkin haters, the spice is the problem. “A lot of pumpkin beers are mostly going to be driven by the spice addition,” Daley says. “The people that don’t like them don’t really like heavily spiced beers, and I would put myself into that latter category.”
Still, for others, it’s a psychological problem. The seasonal creep is real and it is stressful. Seeing pumpkin beers on shelves when it’s still beach weather reminds us that summer is ending, the seasons are changing, and, thus, our impending doom.
Additionally, the earlier retailers put pumpkin beers on shelves, the sooner brewers have to make them to fight for that shelf space. That means most pumpkin beers have to be ready to ship in July, which in turn means brewers aren’t exactly picking fresh pumpkins to brew them. As such, the pumpkin beer as a seasonal being loses its meaning.
Where did pumpkin beer come from?
According to “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” pumpkin ale is an American original. The style emerged at the hands of English colonists in the 18th century, who graced the New World with gourd beer.
Pumpkins, themselves a symbol of the New World, are chock-full of starches and sugars that are prime for fermentation, especially when grain is scarce. The earliest known recipe was published by the American Philosophical Society in 1771. It did not contain any cereal malt and was made more like a cider (with hops!).
What beer style are pumpkin beers?
Pumpkin beers can be any style. They are almost always ales, although some, like Terrapin Pumpkinfest, have been lagers. Many are also porters, stouts, and even barrel-aged imperial stouts. Some brewers, like Almanac, Jolly Pumpkin, and Hi-Wire, even make sour pumpkin ales.
When are pumpkin beers available?
Pumpkin ales are typically available August through October. Anecdotally, in late August we weren’t able to find many pumpkin beers at our go-to grocers and beer stores, but come September, shelves started turning orange.
What are some of the best pumpkin beers?
“The two most important things for any pumpkin beer are going to be balance and natural [ingredients],” Daley says.
Five that a team at VinePair tasted and liked include 10 Barrel Brewing’s Jamaican Me Pumpkin (10.4% ABV), a rum barrel-aged imperial pumpkin beer with notes of squash and molasses. Coney Island Freaktoberfest (6.2% ABV) is coffee-conditioned with Cafe Grumpy espresso. Elysian Brewing Punkuccino (4.3% ABV) is a light-bodied, chocolatey pumpkin ale brewed with Stumptown coffee, lactose, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fleur De Lis Brew Works La Gourde (4% ABV) is brewed with farm-fresh pumpkin and spices; and Iron Hill Pumpkin Ale (5.5% ABV) is brewed with spices and vanilla bean.