As we mentioned yesterday, one of our favorite signs that fall has arrived is the appearance of pumpkin beers. We love the rich, spicy flavors of pumpkin ales (and in some cases stouts). It’s like a crisp autumn breeze, a smooth beer and a slice of pie come together in every sip. And their seasonal nature makes us appreciate them while they last; when they’re out, that’s it until next year.
But which one to drink? With such a brief window of opportunity, can you afford to waste your time on a six-pack of bad pumpkin ale? We think not. So in the name of science (and better drinking), we called up the Bacon Terrorist and Boozy Betty and invited them over for a night of taste-testing. They had proven their palates with us in last year’s cupcake showdown, and Boozy Betty’s knowledge of beers has come in handy on numerous nights out.
To pick the contenders, we turned to BeerAdvocate’s list of pumpkin ales. We decided to seek out as many of the beers on the list as we were able. To keep costs in check, we limited our sample to those beers we could find available for single purchase (again: who wants to waste their time and money on a six-pack of bad pumpkin ale?). A trio of trips to Total Wine in western Alexandria, Calvert-Woodley Liquors in Van Ness, and Trader Joe’s in Old Town yielded thirteen choices in all.
We rated each beer on Presentation, Flavor and Overall, using a scale of 1-5 for each. Once all of our scores were tallied, we averaged our four ratings and added the three categories together to give each contender a score between 1 and 15. At the suggestion of the Bacon Terrorist, we also rated each beer’s label art and averaged those scores independently.
Once we were done, we had a whole lot of numbers, a dump bucket full of also-rans, and a decent nutmeg-spiced buzz. Check out our assessment of each contender (in order from lowest total score to highest) after the jump.
We were all disappointed with this one – no discernable pumpkin or spice notes in the aroma, a flavor that was more burnt than roasted and a bit of a bitter finish, this barely registered as a pumpkin ale. The label promised flavors of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and vanilla…we would have settled for any of the above. As the Bacon Terrorist put it, “No pumpkins were harmed in the brewing of this beer.”
Another beer that lacked a distinct pumpkin flavor, this one didn’t even deliver the orange-hued appearance that manyof the other contenders did. It was smooth drinking, but there wasn’t a lot to recommend this one (especially in light of its ‘premium’ price tag). Perhaps the most forgettable beer of the bunch.
Fisherman’s was an afterthought – when I arrived at Calvert-Woodley to pick up the Harvest Moon and the Jack’s, the gentleman who helped me out informed me he had one more pumpkin beer on hand so I decided to grab it. Described as a subtle balance of pumpkin and spices with a hearty stout, it poured dark and tasted darker. Neither subtle nor balanced, it scored points among those of us who prefer stouts and black ales, but it didn’t work as a pumpkin beer.
Pumpkinhead was distinctly lacking in terms of aroma, but it delivered a flavor that was much more in line with the pumpkin pie flavor we were expecting. The label makes no promises and the presentation doesn’t do much to raise your expectations, so the taste is a welcome surprise.
Is it any surprise that Michelob’s pumpkin offering comes in at the exact midpoint of our scoring range? Actually, it was. We were fully expecting this one to score more poorly than it did, but the bright color and rich aroma definitely elevated this one. Unfortunately, the taste didn’t really deliver on the promise of the presentation and resulted in a decidedly average beer.
Another very average contender, I’d guess that Post Road suffered from being the last beer we tasted as much as Jack’s Pumpkin Spice benefited from being the first. A weak nose lowered expectations, but the flavor delivered and left a nice lingering note of roasted pumpkin. The label was judged harshly for its literal (read: boring) artwork.
This spooky-labeled beer was long on show, but a bit lacking in depth and overall flavor. It scored high marks for its appearance and the scent was there with doses of nutmeg and cloves. The taste didn’t stick around very long, resulting in a clean if somewhat disappointing finish. I doubt they meant it this way, but the headless horseman on the label was a great metaphor for the cut-off flavor of this ale.
This was one of the most consistently-scored beers we sampled, with everyone agreeing that it lived up to the label’s promise of “a full-bodied brown ale brewed with real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon & nutmeg.” All of the flavors and aromas were easily recognizable, and the lasting finish was malty but nice. The label is true to the Dogfish Head brand, but that failed to sway the judges who scored it harshly for lack of creativity.
Go ahead and giggle at the name…we did. Even so, the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale delivered a straightforward, vegetal take on a pumpkin beer that let the main ingredient speak for itself. Points for consistency with realistic-looking label art that depicts a cucurbita pepo (and provides the Latin name to go with it). This was definitely the standout among the ales that made up our mid-range selections.
Before this challenge I had only experienced Weyerbacher’s pumpkin ale on tap (Thank you, Birerria Paradiso!). Although this was definitely one of our favorites among the group, it didn’t fare as well in a bottle as it might have in draft form…the flavors weren’t quite as prevalent. This was the hands-down winner for label art, with its depiction of an angry pumpkin king and his army of jack-o-lanterns best capturing the “spirit of the Great Pumpkin” that we were looking for.
Full disclosure: this one is definitely our go-to Pumpkin Ale. At the first sign of its arrival, we usually pick up a case from Trader Joe’s and enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Its big taste of nutmeg and cinnamon (not so much of pumpkin) is at once warm and refreshing…we could easily drink these year-round. Kennebunkport is a product of Pugsley Brewing, LLC (the same people who put out Sea Dog and Shipyard), but the Kennebunkport brews are much more similar in flavor to Sea Dog’s offerings than to Shipyard’s labels (like Pumpkinhead, for example).
Our runner-up pulled ahead of Kennebunkport by a nose…literally. It was the dark orange color and the deep, balanced aroma that stood out and made us take notice. The flavor was there, though it could have been a bit stronger for our tastes. We’ve found America’s Original in a few locations before, including World Market, and we’ve found it to be a solid choice across the board. These results reinforced that for us and made us eager to run out and pick up a six-pack.
Our hands-down favorite, this one blended a sweetly-spiced aroma with a beautiful orange hue and a flavor that was ridiculously smooth and boozy while still delivering on those pumpkin and spice notes we were looking for. At 9% alcohol by volume and 22 fluid ounces per bottle, this is a no-joke pumpkin ale that stands head and shoulders above the competition. Needless to say, none of this made it into the dump bucket. Buy this one by the bottle (we didn’t see it available in multiples) and savor it like you would a favorite Belgian beer. It’s just that good.
Needless to say, all of these rankings are unscientific at best and represent our personal tastes. It’s possible that you may have a completely different profile you look for in a good pumpkin ale. But hopefully this will give you a good starting point to decide which pumpkin ales you’ll be stocking up on this season.
Have a favorite we missed or one you love that we judged harshly? Let us know below!