The leaves are changing, the breeze has begun to bite with cold and nighttime has become undeniably chilly while the stores are stocked with orange and black, ghouls and ghosts, candy of all sorts. The smell of roasting chiles wafts through farmers markets. It’s an amazing time of year, unless of course, you are like me. It’s one of my favorite/least favorite times of year. I love the weather of fall. I love the angle of light that only a fall afternoon brings. I love football and porches and bonfires. But there are two things I hate more than anything, and both of them coincide with fall: scary movies and pumpkin-flavored anything. Scary movies are easily avoided, but with enough coaxing I can watch one, or even enjoy one (“Stranger Things,” you feel me?), but pumpkins, pumpkin spice, pumpkin candles, pumpkin lattes and, especially, pumpkin beer, are hard to avoid and even harder to appreciate.
Somehow, pumpkin beers are super popular (or used to be, times are a changing; there’s apparently a steep decline in pumpkin beer sales. Hopefully, this is a sign). Other than hops, barley and yeast, there is probably not another single addition to beer that is more popular than pumpkins. At my local bottle shop, there were eight different pumpkin beers in early September. The manager promised even more the next week. I didn’t want to come back for that, so I bought a handful of what was available so I could describe for you how putrid they all were. Just kidding. I tried to give them all a fair shake, but I want you all to know I am quite biased because I think pumpkin is not only the most overrated beer flavor, but is one of the most overrated flavors period. I mean, have you eaten a pumpkin? Just cracked one open and took a bite? They taste nothing like those lattes or smell like those candles. Just saying.
I started with a can of Hornocopia Pumpkin Ale from Horny Goat Brewing. It’s orange-to-straw color and nice clarity, spicy cinnamon and clove on the nose, with a little pumpkin buttery-ness to it. A fairly bright beer for most pumpkin beers, but it still has too much spice, and the carbonation was pretty effervescent with a quickly-dissipating head. This was like the Miller Lite of pumpkin beers.
Next was Wasatch Pumpkin Seasonal (yep, just Pumpkin), of similar ilk, but it’s a bit darker, more reddish in color and has that same spicy nose, though none of it coming through in the flavor. This has a lot more of the buttery-ness, with a lot of creamed corn and biscuity malt and the same quickly-dissipating head and soda-like effervescence.
Right now, as a brewer, I’m thinking, buttery-ness, creamed corn ... wow, those are some serious off flavors! But I assure you, that’s just what pumpkin tastes like: A really shitty beer.
After that, I tried Blackolattern Pumpkin Stout by Wasatch, (yep, two pumpkin beers from the same brewery) which is basically a stout. It had a little less head than a normal stout, (And I did a hard pour!) but it’s just a stout. If I didn’t know it had pumpkin in it, I wouldn’t have thought it had pumpkin in it.
Southern Tier’s Imperial Pumpking (Get it!? Because it’s an imperial beer, it’s got the word “king” in the name?) is 8.6 percent ABV and 100 percent spooky! Just kidding, it’s not scary at all, unless you’re afraid of under-attenuated syrupy-ness and fake-tasting spices, then it’s downright terrifying. This is the Starbucks venti skinny five shot no foam extra whip pumpkin spice latte of pumpkin beers. It’s got all the things that you want in a pumpkin beer: Smells and flavors and colors that look like Halloween – and by the way, Halloween smells like Spencer Gifts and tastes like a candle. But seriously, I wanted to like this one. I was rooting for one beer to stand out and scream scary spooky things at me till I cried in a good way. But, it was just like the rest, except it had even worse head formation and retention.
Crown Valley Brewing’s Pumpkin Cider was the crazy outlier in this whole bunch: it’s not a beer, and it’s from a really small brewery in the South (I know what you’re thinking, but Southern Tier is actually in upstate New York). This is a totally different take on a pumpkin beer, one I’ve never seen. It had all the trappings of a pumpkin beer, the spices, the subtle buttery-ness of the orange gourd but with the tart apple flavor and very dry crispness of a good cider, and it pulled it all off. It actually tasted a lot like a mulled wine. I’m not entirely behind this beer, because pumpkins, but I think this might be the way to go with a pumpkin beer: Give me contrast of flavor versus overly complimentary.
This may be the last year we see huge sales of pumpkin beers. They’ll probably continue their decline, and I’m totally OK with that. I’d proudly be able to say, “I lived through the craft beer boom without ever having to brew a single pumpkin beer.” Although, I might still brew a pumpkin beer, but only if someone gives me one of those massive 2,000-pound pumpkins and lets me ferment an entire batch of beer inside it.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.