Yesterday was officially the first day of autumn, but here at Capital Spice we’ve been celebrating the season for more than a week already.  For us, the true harbinger of fall can’t be found on a calendar – we watch the shelves of our local grocery stores for it.  And once it arrives, we do our best to get our fill before it disappears for another year.

That magical fall-mark?  Pumpkin beer.  If you’ve never tasted one, try to call up memories of pumpkin pie with its thick, sweet taste and its rich, spicy aroma.  Now take that memory and pour it into a 12 oz. beer bottle, and you’ve got this delicious fall beverage.  Think of it as drinking seasonally – Barbara Kingsolver would be proud!

Recommendations and details after the jump.

Generally speaking, pumpkin beer starts to make its appearance on grocery store shelves in the second half of September, and it can usually be found through Thanksgiving without too much difficulty.  Sure – we could just as easily be celebrating Oktoberfest at this time of year, but pumpkin beers have a refreshing quality that most of the traditional offerings brewed for the German holiday lack.

When I started looking into pumpkin beers, I was amazed to learn that there are distinct factions among their fans.  Some prefer a purist’s approach, seeking out recipes that use real pumpkin as part of their mash, while others favor recipes using puree or pumpkin pie filling.  And believe it or not, there are some very popular varieties that use no pumpkin whatsoever in their recipes, allowing the cinnamon, nutmeg, and other pie spices to trigger your sense memories of pumpkin pie and suggest the missing ingredient.

Trader Joe’s Kennebunkport Brewing Company (a proprietary brand that is actually bottled for them in Maine by Shipyard Brewing) offers a great example of that third type – and it happens to be our favorite.  Because KBC brews a wheat ale as the beer’s base, the spices they use come through loud and clear without having to fight a stubborn, bitter backdrop.  This is likely to be one of the lighter pumpkin beers you try – think of it as a flavored wheat beer and you’re on the right track.  But the complexity of the spice flavors really sets it apart from some of its more staid competition, and at $5.99 for a six-pack, it’s worth checking out next time you’re in Trader Joe’s.

Sadly, our love of Kennebunkport’s pumpkin beer seems to put us firmly in the minority among beer snobs.  Their tastes seem to lead them toward beers that are more focused on the pumpkin itself – Buffalo Bill’s ‘Original Pumpkin Ale,’ produced in volume by Portland Brewing, is a frequently-cited example.  It has a much more pronounced orange color and the flavor has more of the vegetative quality that you would expect to come out of the pumpkin they use in the mash.  To be honest, I found it a little on the bitter side when compared with the sweet spice of the KBC.  Buffalo Bill’s is most easily found at World Market, but it’s widely avialable.

This year, I’m planning to seek out Rehoboth-brewed Dogfish Head’s ‘Punkin’ Ale’ for comparison’s sake.  They use a brown ale as the base for their pumpkin offering, which suggests to me a maltier, chewier beer that could really show off the flavors of the pumpkin if it’s done properly.  It also carries a higher alcohol content (7%).  Expect an update once I’ve had a chance to give it a try.

In all cases, the key to pumpkin ales’ allure is their drinkability.  Most have only 5 or 6 per cent alcohol by volume, so you can enjoy a few without worrying about getting too drunk too quickly.  And the flavor (in most cases) is equal parts relaxing and invigorating.  Stop and take a sniff between sips – you’ll be transported to past holiday dinners and warm fireplaces.  Make sure to try a few brands to get a better understanding of the variety that’s out there and find a favorite.

Whatever you do, make sure you stock up on the one you love.  When the last case has been sold, you won’t see it again until next September.  You can extend the season into the new year by strategically purchasing a case or two toward the end of the season and then rationing your bottles of liquid pie over the course of a few months.  But don’t try to stretch your stash to last you from this year’s season to the next – the anticipation and the waiting are an essential part of pumpkin beer’s allure.