Revenge of the pumpkin beer | Bleader

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Revenge of the pumpkin beer

Posted By on 10.16.14 at 03:10 PM

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Way too many pumpkin beers
After last year's pumpkin beer tastings, which quickly got out of hand and led to me trying more pumpkin beers than I'd ever wanted to, I was planning to skip the whole thing this year. Except I realized I had a bottle of Southern Tier's Pumking and a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale in the basement that I'd never gotten around to drinking the year before (some people would refer to that as "cellaring," but I call it "making room in the fridge"). I did want to taste those two next to this year's offerings. And I figured it couldn't hurt to throw in a couple favorites from last year for comparison. I'm still not sure how I ended up tasting 14 different beers.

Part of the reason I was interested in doing a tasting was that I'd recently enjoyed Ten Ninety's new release De Ogen, a farmhouse ale brewed with pumpkin and spices, and wanted to try it next to other pumpkin beers. This turned out to be a terrible idea. What I liked about De Ogen—its lack of sweetness, slightly tart finish, and very mild spice flavor—made it taste sour and flat in comparison to the sweet, highly spiced beers we'd been drinking. After taking a sip one friend made a face, declared it too sour, and dumped out the rest of her glass. I had to admit that it did taste sour in that context, even though I knew it wasn't a sour beer.

Slapshot Gourd Damn
Another local beer, Slapshot's Gourd Damn, fell victim to the same phenomenon—partly because it smells sweet and highly spiced, but the flavor is much drier. "It tastes like you made pumpkin pie without the sugar," my friend observed. "And not in a good way." She ended up coming around to the beer, thought she still didn't like it as much as I did (it was one of my favorites).

In the end, two things stood out to me from the tasting. One was how much a year of aging improved both the Dogfish Head and Southern Tier beers. The other was how many of the beers I liked. There were a few duds—and there are several I've disliked in the past that I didn't buy again—but at some point I may have to stop saying that I don't like pumpkin beer.

Recommended:

Spiteful Jackass O' Lantern: One of my favorite pumpkin beers last year, this one was excellent again. It's got a slightly funky, roasty pumpkin seed flavor, not sweet at all—it was almost savory.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale: A well-known brewery in St. Louis (my hometown), Schlafly just began distributing in Chicago, and their pumpkin ale is the first beer to hit local shelves. It reminded me of cinnamon cookies, sweet and highly spiced, but lighter and less syrupy than some of the other beers.

Slapshot Gourd Damn: Cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger; as mentioned above, this is much less sweet than your average pumpkin beer.

Ten Ninety De Ogen
Ten Ninety De Ogen: This farmhouse ale brewed with pumpkin and spices smells like banana and bubblegum, but tastes citrusy and Belgian, with only a very mild cinnamon and clove flavor and a slightly tart, refreshing finish. While the flavor is well-rounded, the beer doesn't taste nearly as alcoholic as it is (8.5 percent ABV).

Southern Tier Pumking (fresh and year-old versions): This year's Pumking is very sweet and spiced, with a slightly bitter nutmeg finish. The older one is even more syrupy, almost candied, with no bitterness—a development I wouldn't have thought I'd like, but it works, mellowing and melding all the flavors.

Pumking 2014 (left) and 2013 (right)
Dogfish Head Punkin (fresh and year-old versions): As with the Pumking, aging the Punkin ale rounds out its sharp corners. The dry finish of this year's version is entirely absent in the older beer, and the brighter notes of cinnamon and nutmeg end up muted; the result is caramel-sweet and complex.

Pretty good:

Southern Tier Warlock: We tasted this pumpkin imperial stout last, so it may have fallen victim to palate fatigue. But while the sweet spiciness was balanced by the roasty, slightly bitter stout flavor, it didn't stand out to me.

Anderson Valley Fall Hornin': A strong cinnamon flavor, like Red Hots with less sweetness and heat, leading to a slightly hoppy finish.

Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin: Rich nutmeg, not too sweet, not bad but unremarkable. I will say that it's much better than the brewery's Pumpkinhead Ale, which I tried and hated last year (relabeled for Trader Joe's as Kennebunkport Pumpkin Ale).

Not recommended:

Saugatuck Pumpkin Chai: This tasted weirdly astringent, and not at all like pumpkin (spices) or chai.

Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale:
Syrupy, with faint notes of bourbon that were hard to detect because the beer tasted like artificial flavoring to me.

Red Hook Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter: This tasted like a roasty, dry porter, perfectly fine but with little hint of the pumpkin, spices, or maple syrup it was supposedly brewed with.

Julia Thiel writes about beer on Thursdays.

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