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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pumpkin beer, local edition: A dozen more brews

Posted By on 10.30.13 at 04:55 PM

Most pumpkin beers look much alike.
Something odd happens when I start tasting similar things—like styles of beer—side by side: I become slightly obsessed with trying all the possible varieties. This is dangerous when it comes to pumpkin beers, because there are a lot of them available in Chicago. But after my last pumpkin beer round-up—which came about more or less by accident, after I realized I had several in my fridge—I couldn't help being curious about the other ones out there.

I'm not even a big fan of pumpkin beer, but every time I'd see a pumpkin beer I hadn't tried, I'd wonder whether I might like it better than my favorites from the last tasting I did. So I picked up a few more bottles to compare, mostly from midwestern breweries. Then I saw that DryHop was doing a tasting of pumpkin beers from (mostly) local breweries in conjunction with the release of their own pumpkin stout, so I went to that too. In all, I tried more than a dozen pumpkin beers in addition to the first eight I reviewed—and this still isn't anywhere close to a comprehensive list. As before, I'm listing these in order from least to most favorite.

Kennebunkport Pumpkin Ale: According to the Internet, this is Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale, labeled for sale at Trader Joe's. It smells like gingerbread and tastes intensely gingery with a little clove, which I liked until the sweetness came through and overpowered all the other flavors.

Arcadia Jaw-Jacker: This isn't technically a pumpkin beer, because it's not brewed with pumpkin—but there's a pumpkin on the label. The lack of real pumpkin didn't bother me; as previously mentioned, there's no consensus on whether adding squash to beer imparts squash flavor. But the beer was too heavily spiced for my taste—cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice—with not much other flavor.

Jolly Pumpkin La Parcela: Despite Jolly Pumpkin's name, this is the brewery's only pumpkin beer. As the label says, "Ok, so the joke was that Jolly Pumpkin doesn't brew a pumpkin beer. Well, now we do. Just this one." The brewery specializes in sour beers, and this is—sour. Very sour. It's supposed to have "real pumpkins, hints of spice, and a gentle kiss of cocoa to liven the soul," but all I tasted was very tart beer.

Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus: Obviously, this is another sour pumpkin beer, but I liked it better than the Jolly Pumpkin. It's only mildly tart, as opposed to overwhelmingly sour, and I could actually taste spices and pumpkin flavor in it—they're subtle, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale: The fact that this beer came in third says very good things about the top two, because I like it a lot. It's well-balanced, lightly spiced, and not too sweet. It tastes like a brown ale with hints of pumpkin, caramel, and cinnamon, not a spice bomb.

Hoppin' Frog Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin: I know, the name is a mouthful. The brewery is Hoppin' Frog, and the beer is called Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin. And it's pretty great. It tastes like ginger and lemon in addition to the traditional pumpkin-pie spices, making it a very bright, clean-tasting pumpkin beer, different from any I've tasted. It also has a higher ABV than most—8.4 percent—but doesn't taste like it.

Spiteful Jackass O'Lantern: I've been a big fan of all the Spiteful beers I've tried (especially Mrs. O'Leary's Milk Stout), but I was still surprised how much I liked their pumpkin beer. Like the Dogfish Head ale, it's understated, a well-rounded brown ale with plenty of caramel and toasty malt, with spices that complement the beer's flavor rather than overpowering it. I also tried this next to Point's Whole Hog, one of my favorites from the last tasting, and I prefer the Spiteful for everyday drinking. As I mentioned before, the Whole Hog is intensely spiced and sweet, like pumpkin pie in a glass—great for dessert, but not something I'd want too often.

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And now, the beers from the tasting at DryHop. For some reason they didn't offer their pumpkin stout as part of the pumpkin-beer tasting flight, so we ordered a ten-ounce glass of it—that's it on the right in the photo. It's also the only one that I'm 100 percent certain wasn't out of order in the tasting; for a few of the beers, my impression was completely different from reviews I've since read online, which makes me think maybe a few were mixed up before they were served. Or maybe not. Who knows. Anyway, from least to most favorite:

New Holland Ichabod Ale: Incredibly, cloyingly sweet. This beer has pretty good reviews online, and I can't understand why. It tastes to me like the reason some people hate pumpkin beer.

Dryhop Starry Night in Sleepy Hollow Pumpkin Stout: This tasted like a very dry stout, with roasty coffee flavors and no discernible pumpkin or spices. As a stout, it was fine but not particularly exciting.

Cisco Brewers Pumple Drumkin: To me, this tasted fermented and funky, almost like a Belgian style, with the spice secondary to the funkiness. There's nothing in the way the beer was brewed or other reviews online to explain this, though. Go figure.

Greenbush Unicorn Killer: The hoppiest of the beers we tried, this ale is cinnamony and not overly sweet. It's a beery sort of pumpkin beer.

Southern Tier Pumking: One of the beers I reviewed in the first round, the Pumking on tap tasted less heavily spiced than I remembered it, but still very good.

Flossmoor Station Barrel-Aged Jack the Pumpkin: A lager aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels, this beer had a slightly sweet, full flavor—bourbon, caramel, pumpkin, and spices.

Atlas Phantasmagourdia: Brewed in collaboration with 5 Rabbit, this ale contains roasted pumpkins as well as coriander, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and piloncillo sugar. It smells oddly fruity, but tastes like nice combination of spices—there's not a lot of sweetness, but it does have a noticeable honey flavor. I couldn't taste the peppercorns at first, but several sips in, the heat began to slowly build. Unlike many pumpkin beers, this is one I could drink a full pint of. I think it also wins in the naming category.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.

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