“The numbing sensation from the cloves abutted the slight vegetative shimmer of pumpkin along the sides of my tongue. The carbonation bubbled clean my palette. I was intrigued and amused. And then I tasted the Pumking and fell in love.” — the group consensus about the intriguing Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead and the lovely Southern Tier’s Pumking
Pumpkin beers are favorites of mine. I’m haunted by the idea that I’ll really never know if I love them more because they’re seasonal, and I love that. Sometimes I’m haunted by beer, but that pumpkin beers are associated with Halloween as well as the seasonality question hovering over me like ideas of predestination and fate—it all makes them even better.
And so, I plucked four different pumpkin beers from the shelves, got out the tasting glasses, took copious notes and as my dear friend, Lynn, would say, “Leaned back and rusted my zipper…” Not really, of course, but a catheter would have been handy because sometimes, getting up to use the facilities is sometimes a real issue when it gets in the way of that which is so delicious.
Shipyard Brewing Company’s Pumpkinhead Ale | Portland, Maine | 4.5% Abv | 12 oz.
This was the only 12 oz of the bunch (the rest were 22 oz bombers). The label is badass with the mythology of the headless horseman evoked with this jack-o-latern clad form riding wicked and high on an ethereal steed.
Because this was our first beer (we arranged them from lightest in color to darkest), we approached this beer with unadulterated palettes as well as blood alcohol levels. This is important to note because we didn’t spit any of the beers BUT we did take our time and took very small sips. We also used different glasses including an Oregon Pinot Noir glass to try and suss out in the most rigorous way every nook and cranny of the bouquet as well as mouthfeel and taste of these salubrious brews. In other words, we did the hard work worthy of your eyes and mind and palettes. Be forewarned, however. I’ve read too many reviews that dismiss a lot of these beers as having no nose. They are wrong. Instead, they were just the right glass away from being able to smell the beer. Moral of the story: make sure you have a glass that allows the bouquet to well up enough in the chamber of the glass.
Immediately, we sensed something unexpectedly dominating in the bouquet that was not pumpkin or pumpkin pie aromas. It turned out to be cinnamon. Not dramatic but when it happens in a beer, it is a bit dramatic, actually. It was delightful but definitely not as warm and pumpin-y (Can I bastardize the language and say that? Why yes I can.) as we would have wanted. Much of this made sense due to the low ABV as well as the luxuriant and brisk carbonation. Ultimately, this is a great pumpkin beer that’s closer to a session beer than it is to something more akin to a meal in a glass.
Southern Tier Pumking Imperial Ale | Lakewood, NY | 8.6% Abv | 22 oz
This beer haunts me. I first tried it last year and was amazed. Shortly thereafter, I traveled to Massachusetts and saw it all over the place. I knew it was in more demand in Chicago, so I drank as much as I could. When I arrived back in Chicago, the shelves were bare. I’m still cursing myself that I didn’t take any back with me for it was a long, long winter, spring and summer before this treasure arrived once again.
Just as I remembered, this beer resonates with every part of me in a way that gives me goosebumps. I’m suspicious that it’s because it’s so buttery and vanilla-esque. Just as California Chardonnays are largely overly oaked because Americans love their buttered popcorn smell and therefore buy up as much as they can, and just as vanilla is so universally pleasing it’s become synonymous with “bland” or “borning,” I might be under the spell of those same influences. But I’m also under the spell of a well-balanced bouquet.
Along with the warmth of the butter and vanilla is the plume of toasted pecans that eventually emerge from the cacophony of brimming autumnal fragrances. One of my friends said it reminded her of a Yankee Candle Company’s rendering of pumpkin pie and autumn day. Burning leaves off in the distance, pie baking at the other end of the house, the sunlight warming up the room in which you’re struggling to stay awake, Proust writing at breakneck speed, cookie crumbles leaving oily dots on the page—Pumking hits the middle c of consciousness and memory with every waft and every sip.
Wachusett Imperial Pumpkin | Westminster, Massachusetts | 8% Abv | 22 oz
Well versed in their delightful Octoberfest, I found their Imperial Pumpkin definitely drinkable. And yes, we were all so taken with the Pumpkin that we were ruined for anything else. Thankfully, I sipped on this deliciousness the previous evening and liked it just fine. The qualification is that it is without the trappings of the naughty pie crust-biscuity-toasted buttered pecans that seem to catapult Southern Tier’s Pumking into the rafters of the mind of all that tastes and smells sublime.
At the same time, one can argue that the Wachusett variety might be more elegant. Both are replete with that Imperial status meaning a lot of alcohol for a beer. And both handle the alcohol although the Wachusett doesn’t has as much fat—if you can say that—to hide behind. The result is that there is more of a spice presence. More than that is something you’ll often encounter in pumpkin beers: ginger.
While it is well balanced enough, one still intuits the raciness and palette-cleansing effects of the ginger. I couldn’t identify what it was until I looked on the label. Nevertheless, it’s there, and it keeps the Belgian candi sugar from being overwhelming. But it also cleanses enough to warrant a designation of “lean.”
Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin | 8.5% | 22 oz
What a great label. A grinning jack-o-lantern, its flesh ravaged by small, tubular growths suggestive of something dark and dangerous. At 8.5% abv, it comes packing with as much alcohol as the previous two. What is completely different than the other two, however, is the smoke and the malt. I sipped on this beer for two days. I sipped on it in different glasses at different temperatures.
During the initial back-to-back tasting against all the other beers, the Sam Adams was too smoky and heavy to compete; I couldn’t even finish my glass. Sipping it alone, however, was a different story.
This is a selfish beer. It needs to be by itself and judiciously parsed out. Then it becomes something to savor, much like a peaty Scotch. Yes, it’s the peaty Scotch of pumpkin beers.
Thoughts on autumnal beers? What’s the next fall fruit deserving of a beer? Do tell!