by Mark Tichenor
How many of you can identify the taste of a pumpkin? Sure, we’ve all had our share of thanksgiving pie, but the flavors we’re familiar with are the spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, maybe allspice. Really, if your pumpkin pie contained no pumpkin at all, you’d likely not even notice. The same is true with the big annual autumn craft brewing craze, pumpkin ale. Every year, America’s breweries issue forth a deluge of the heavily scented, spiced brew, most of which hangs around on your friendly local retailer’s shelves to be sold at clearance prices mid-January or so.
Now whether you enjoy pumpkin beer or not isn’t my business, but the unsettling thing is that the stuff gets brewed and released earlier each year, creating a seasonal marketing grind more suited to large supermarkets that start selling Halloween candy in August (“My goodness, little Jimmy, don’t you look scary? Here’s a stale, rock-hard mini Twix”). This year, pumpkin ale, craft brewing’s harbinger of autumn, started popping up on shelves as early as July.
While that might be good business sense on the part of breweries, it’s a crack in the veneer of the small-batch craft brewing, and a glimpse behind the curtain as to how big-money serious the industry is these days. It’s also annoying because, in the middle of a short New York State summer, the last thing you want to think about is all those damn leaves you’ll be raking in a couple of months.
Then there’s the taste of the beer itself, almost none of which is pumpkin. For all its visual appeal, the bright orange gourd possesses such a mild flavor as to be instantly obliterated by beer’s malt backbone and craft brewers’ compulsion to over-hop. Usually, these ales taste of the same spices as in Grandma’s pie, though usually less subtle, with a big bitter kick at the end.
The result: many people go out and buy a couple of six-packs, only to wind up longing for a good old-fashioned IPA or pale ale after the first three bottles. Sales of pumpkin ale spike early in their seasonal retail cycle, level out fast as consumers develop palate fatigue, and slow to a trickle long before autumn is over. Personally, I’m good for one pint around mid-September, and that’s pretty much it until the following year.
This is the point in the column where I try to be all even-handed and claim that I don’t mean to rain on anyones pumpkin parade, so I will say that some pumpkin ales are better balanced, subtler, and/or more eminently drinkable than others. Eminent among those is Pumking, by The Southern Tier Brewing Company of Lakewood New York.
Big, bold and sweet, Pumking is fundamentally pumpkin pie in a glass, with a hefty 8.6% abv kick. It has a chunky, voluptuous consistency that underscores the idea that you’re drinking something big. This is a mighty linebacker of a beer that doesn’t play cutesy with the fact that it’s a trendy seasonal, and makes a great rich dessert after a hearty meal.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Dogfish Head beer would fly off the shelf, and their take on the style, Punkin, does not disappoint in the sales category. Punkin is viscous and boldly spice-forward, with dogfish head’s desire to make a statement evident on the palate. While not as over-the-top as Pumking, this is still a pumpkin ale that manages to be a good beer first and a novelty second.
Really, the purpose of seasonal beer is not to overshadow the fine brews we love year-round, but to inject a bit of life into a brewery’s offerings, lest the consumer take them for granted. Most pumpkin beers succeed admirably at this and, although they may not be to every curmudgeonly beer writer’s taste, they highlight the innovative spirit that made America rekindle a national romance with beer.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.