Mon 22 Oct 2012
The first time we sat down with our friends the Bacon Terrorist and Boozy Betty to rate pumpkin beers, they were still something of a novelty to us. We gathered 13, largely the most widely available brands, and we had no trouble crowning Southern Tier’s Pumking the winner. What a difference three years make…
Since then, it’s become much easier to locate all kinds of small-batch labels around the area. And it seems like almost every brewer out there has jumped on the pumpkin bandwagon. Out in Seattle last weekend, Elysian Brewing Company hosted their “Great Pumpkin Beer Festival,” where they sampled 60 pumpkin beers – including 13 different offerings of their own!
We knew it was time to sit down and revisit our ratings. Would Pumking reign uncontested? Or would one of the new crop rise to claim the throne?
To find out, we gathered as many different pumpkin beers as we could over the span of a month. Many of our finds came from Total Wine & More in Alexandria (where almost every beer they sell is available in singles as well as six-packs) and Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, though a few others were collected here and there along the way. We also found a second pair of willing tasters, our friends KentuckyFrench and the Yankee Sipper.
A rundown of all the competitors with tasting notes after the jump.
We decided not to revisit any of the beers from last time that came in below the midpoint of our scoring system, so that eliminated four widely-available beers as well as one that is no longer made. When all was said and done, we had 26 pumpkin beers – exactly twice as many as we tasted last time. We also found a pumpkin pie soda from Maine Root, a pumpkin cider from Woodchuck, and a beer brewed with yams instead of pumpkin from Bruery, though we scored them independently so they weren’t included in our rankings.
Like last time, we scored every beer on a scale from 1 to 5 in each of three categories:
- Presentation, which covered aroma in addition to visual cues like color and carbonation;
- Overall Impression
We averaged the scores of all six judges in each category and then added those averages together to come up with each beer’s total score. A perfect score would have been 15 (5′s in all categories from all judges), and the worst score possible was a 3 (1′s across the board). Separately, we rated each bottle’s label art on the same scale, though those scores weren’t factored into a beer’s total score.
Our tastes were based on 1-ounce pours of each beer, and everyone made liberal use of the dump bucket instead of finishing every sample. Call it self-preservation or a commitment to the cause, but we were determined to make it through the gauntlet of tastings without getting hammered.
And when the dust settled, here’s what we found. The beers that follow are in order from least to most favorite, and the scores for the three categories and the total are there for your review.
26. Jacques au Lantern (Evolution Craft Brewing Company)
1.33 + 1.17 + 1.33 = 3.83
The general consensus was that this beer’s strong vegetal notes were the least welcome way to pay tribute to the pumpkin used in the brew. The nose was non-existent.
25. Punkin’ Harvest Pumpkin Ale (Uinta Brewing)
1.83 + 1.17 + 1.50 = 4.50
Weak pumpkin flavor and lack of overall impact made this our second least favorite beer of the bunch.
24. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (Smuttynose Brewing Company)
1.67 + 1.17 + 1.67 = 4.51
The first of the beers to make a re-appearance from our first showdown, Smuttynose placed in the top 5 last time. General lackluster flavor relative to its competitors relegated it to the bottom three this time around.
23. Pumple Drumkin (Cisco Brewers)
2.33 + 1.33 + 1.5 = 5.16
We had really high hopes from Pumple Drumkin after seeing the “Great Pumpkin meets Terrance and Phillip” illustration on the label. Unfortunately, this just tasted like a basic beer with a bit of spice note on the nose.
22. Boxcar Pumpkin Porter (Starr Hill Brewery)
2.33 + 1.67 + 2 = 6
Starr Hill’s entry into the field was fighting an uphill battle as the only porter in a field full of ales. As such, its heavier taste stood out as bitter in comparison. If you’re generally a fan of darker beers and you just HAVE TO try a pumpkin beer, this one may be for you.
21. Post Road Pumpkin Ale (Brooklyn Brewery)
1.83 + 2.17 + 2.17 = 6.17
The second carryover from 2009, Post Road seems to focus on the pumpkin to the exclusion of any spice notes. It has a bit of a toasty flavor, which was nice, but it still lacks nose and that hurt the Presentation score.
20. Terrapin Pumpkinfest (Terrapin Beer Company)
2.5 + 2.17 + 1.83 = 6.5
Despite sharing a name with the University of Maryland mascot, there is nothing local about this Athens, GA, based brewery. And despite sharing a name with several other pumpkin beers we tried, there is very little about this beer that suggests pumpkins or spice. One of the odd instances where the overall score underperformed both appearance and taste.
19. New Holland Ichabod Ale (New Holland Brewing)
2.33 + 2.17 + 2.5 = 7
Ichabod remains a divisive entry into the pumpkin beer field. We have a friend who swears by it as one of her favorites, but we just haven’t been able to understand the appeal. In the smaller field last time, it landed exactly in the middle, but the mild spice notes and lack of finish cut it off earlier this time around.
18. Wolaver’s Organic Pumpkin Ale (Otter Creek Brewing)
2.5 + 2.33 + 2.33 = 7.16
Sure, we tend to favor organic when it comes to produce and other food items, but we rarely seek out organic alcoholic beverages. Wolaver’s did little to convince us we’ve been missing out, though the roasted pumpkin flavor came through distinctly.
17. Smashed Pumpkin Ale (Shipyard Brewing Company)
2.67 + 2.33 + 2.5 = 7.5
Though their basic offering (Pumpkinhead) failed to make the cut-off for inclusion – it placed eleventh out of thirteen last time around – we were interested to see what Shipyard’s large format beer would bring to the table. The aroma was big and seemed to promise good things, but the taste fell flat. The overall impression and total score both reflect a beer that was decent, but nothing special – and not worth the price of a large format offering.
16. America’s Original Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill’s Brewery)
2 + 2.67 + 2.83 = 7.5
Maybe it was the fact that we tasted it toward the beginning (we went alphabetically), but our runner-up from the first tasting failed to even come close this time around, with a score at the exactly mid-point of the range. The appearance that impressed us so much in 2009 seemed lacking this time, with a much less vibrant orange color and a less robust nose.
15. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)
1.83 + 2.83 + 3 = 7.66
Dogfish Head’s pumpkin ale, like most of their offerings, is long on hops. It gives the beer a nice, crisp flavor that contrasts with the sweetness of the pie spices and really set it apart in terms of flavor. Were it not for an underwhelming appearance that was short on aroma and color, this would have been a more serious contender.
14. Blue Point Pumpkin Ale (Blue Point Brewing Company)
2.33 + 2.67 + 2.83 = 7.83
“Long Island’s Brewery” promised rustic flavor in their pumpkin ale with a burlap patterned label. There was plenty of pie spice on the palate, but it lacked balance. Overall a solid entry, but not one that we would go out of our way to seek out.
13. Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Long Trail Brewing Company)
3.67 + 1.83 + 2.33 = 7.83
Long Trail’s large-format offering comes in an unassuming package, but it immediately hits you with a blast of nutmeg on the nose and a rich, orange color. Sadly, the flavor is a serious let-down after such a big entrance. This beer lands in the middle of the pack based almost entirely on its presentation, and it’s the rare case of a large-format beer that underperforms its more accessible sibling.
12. Samuel Adams Pumpkin Harvest Ale (Samuel Adams Brewery)
3.17 + 2.17 + 2.5 = 7.84
This is Samuel Adams’ six-pack pumpkin offering, and it’s also available in their Harvest Collection sampler. It delivered a big dose of cinnamon and nutmeg in the aroma and the color was nice, though the flavor was flat. Among the pumpkin beers you’re likely to find in your local grocery store, this is a standout.
11. Harpoon UFO Pumpkin (Harpoon Brewery)
2.33 + 2.83 + 2.83 = 7.99
Harpoon’s “unfiltered offering” – UFO – is an unfiltered ale from a series that is primarily focused on wheat beers. Even so, it offered a big pumpkin flavor and a lingering finish. This struck us as a beer that would be much better on tap, but we still appreciated the effort.
10. Long Trail Pumpkin Ale (Long Trail Brewing Company)
3 + 2.5 + 2.67 = 8.17
No, this isn’t a typo. We tasted both the Long Trail Imperial and it’s six-pack bound sibling, and the smaller bottle actually scored significantly better on taste. Although it lacked the aroma of the Imperial, it delivered a more complex flavor that had most of us taking second and third sips. If Long Trail can find a way to combine the best aspects of both beers, they will have a real contender on their hands.
9. Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale (Hoppin’ Frog Brewery)
2.67 + 2.83 + 3 = 8.5
Akron-based Hoppin’ Frog offered up one of two “double pumpkin” ales we tasted, and we’re still not sure what exactly that means. What we know for sure is that both had significant roasted pumpkin flavor in addition to the standard notes of spice, which was welcome. Hoppin’ Frog was among the better beers we tasted, but we felt like it left room for improvement – more spice, longer finish. Has anyone tried a triple pumpkin ale yet?
8. Stegmaier Pumpkin Ale (Lion Brewery)
2.5+ 3.33 + 3.33 = 9.16
This was a dark-horse candidate, as we knew very little about Stegmaier beyond how difficult it was to spell when comparing notes during the acquisition phase. At the end of the day, I suspect it benefited somewhat from taster-fatigue and generous scoring, but it did offer a smooth taste and was a solid contender overall. Definitely worth checking out.
7. Heavy Seas Great Pumpkin (Heavy Seas Beer)
3.17 + 2.83 + 3.17 = 9.17
One of the most local offerings in the lineup, Heavy Seas is out of Baltimore and they offer both a Great Pumpkin (in bottles) and a Greater Pumpkin (only on tap, as far as we know). The beer was dark and had significant notes of clove and allspice, giving it a more exotic aroma than many of the lesser beers we tried. The taste, however, was only slightly better than average and it faded rather quickly. Even so, this Charm City contender almost cracked the top 5 and could do so easily in future matchups.
6. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (Weyerbacher Brewing Company)
3.17 + 3.17 + 3.5 = 9.84
Our number four beer in the 2009 contest, Weyerbacher continues to hold its own among the best of the pumpkin beer offerings we found. The overall effect is greater than the sum of its aroma and its taste, and this is definitely a beer that we will gladly seek out year after year. And the label art, depicting an imperial pumpkin holding court, is still a crowd favorite.
5. Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale (Samuel Adams Brewery)
3.67 + 3.17 + 3.5 = 10.34
We enter the top five with Sam Adams’ large-format brew and the first total score above 10 (out of a possible 15). This big boy comes out swinging with a strong nose of pie, though it tapers off a bit upon tasting. We could see ourselves enjoying the full bottle over the course of an evening without the quality tapering off appreciably along the way.
4. Southern Tier Pumking (Southern Tier Brewing Company)
3.67 + 4 + 3.83 = 11.5
Want an indication of just how the field has changed since the last time we conducted a tasting? Pumking achieved a near-perfect score in 2009, and it has been the yardstick by which we’ve measured all pumpkin beers since. When tasted side by side with some of the beers that have entered the DC marketplace more recently, though, we found it to be a bit more restrained in aroma and color. The flavor remains among the best and most balanced representation of “pumpkin pie in a glass,” which is why we still find ourselves buying this large-format offering out of New York by the case.
3. Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale (Elysian Brewing Company)
3.67 + 4 + 4 = 11.67
At the beginning of this post (it seems so long ago), we mentioned Elysian’s Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. This is one of the more widely available pumpkin beers they produce, and if it’s any indication of what they have to offer we’re on a mission to taste them all! Night Owl’s flavor is deep and a little dark, with strong vegetal notes but an overall impression of spice (not sweetness). The aroma could have done more to sell the beer on the front end, but we are running out to find any remaining six packs of this one.
2. Williamsburg Alewerks Pumpkin Ale (Williamsburg Alewerks)
4 + 4.17 + 4 = 12.17
If you thought Revolutionary-era candle-making and William & Mary were the only reasons to visit Colonial Williamsburg, you were wrong. Williamsburg Alewerks is a microbrewery in town that produces a broad range of beers, from the historically-inspired to the cutting-edge. Their pumpkin beer came to our attention two years ago, and we’ve been chasing it ever since. This is another “pie in a glass” style beer, but the lingering flavor is savory and crisp. We could drink this all day if we could just find enough of it – like we said, it comes from a microbrewery and is always in short supply around here.
1. Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (Schlafly Beer)
4.17 + 4.83 + 4.67 = 13.67
As you can see from the score, Schlafly’s pumpkin ale was the hands-down winner of our tasting. It received the highest scores we saw in all three categories, including nearly-unanimous 5s for taste. It has become increasingly easy to find Schlafly beers in DC (they’re based in St. Louis), and that means this is likely to be our new yardstick until the time comes to taste again.
We came across a few additional pumpkin beers after we finished our tasting:
Trader Joe’s Kennebunkport Brewing Company Pumpkin Ale remains a solid contender, and its price point and late-season availability make it a top choice if you’re looking to lay in a supply to get you through the colder months.
Gruntled Pumpkin, from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company, is another option we found late in the season. There wasn’t anything outstanding about the flavor and it lacked a significant nose, but the label art was great. It’s likely that this one would have come in near the middle of the pack.
So there you have it – our attempt to rate the pumpkin beers of 2012. Which ones have you enjoyed? Which ones would you skip in the future? And – if you’ve found any we missed – where did you get them and when?