It is technically autumn in Texas now, and though it will stay shorts weather through Thanksgiving, other markers of the ostensible change of seasons are everywhere: college football games, network TV premieres and, most relevant to this column, a bumper crop of pumpkin ales. Oktoberfest is, after all, still half a month away. And just as the pumpkin spiced latte does for certain of the yoga-pants-adorned among us, the flavor of Linus’ favorite produce aids South Texans in our willful delusion that fall has befallen us in earnest.
Though I enjoy seasonal brews as much as the next beer correspondent, my experience with pumpkin ales is scant. My new-dad status has inspired more living room drinking recently; happily, the ever-expanding beer section at the H-E-B Plus! on 1604 and Bandera, and the expertly curated selection at the Quarry Whole Foods Market, have made it easy to get a survey of this year’s pumpkin ales. I began with the Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin and Wasatch’s Pumpkin Seasonal. Though I sampled a number of other bottles in the course of writing this column, they remained the highest pinnacle and most pitiful of the lot.
Worst first—the Pumpkin Seasonal failed to offer anything approximating the taste of actual pumpkin, landing somewhere closer to syrupy secondhand extract drizzled down into a beer bottle. Even worse, the be-drizzled beer tasted like a botched first attempt at homebrewing an amber ale, lacking all balance and any nuance. Coupled with its mere four percent ABV, there’s little to commend Wasatch for shipping this across Utah state lines.
The Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin was a different story. Improving on last year’s UFO Pumpkin ale, the Boston brewery blended that recipe with that of an imperial stout. Thus fortified, this beer provided everything the Pumpkin Seasonal lacked—substantial body, hefty alcohol ratio and no question as to its authentically pumpkin properties. Layering on cinnamon, nutmeg and creamy overtones, and unobtrusive hops, Imperial Pumpkin succeeded in reproducing everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving dessert—Mom’s pumpkin pie—in drinkable form.
Some honorable mentions fell between these two extremes. Southern Tier’s Pumking Ale has numerous devotees in the beer world, and while this year’s batch held up well as a solid cool-weather, high-ABV beer, the recipe went overboard on cinnamon, leaving an aftertaste akin to a handful of Red Hots. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale claims to be the oldest in the country, turning up at the fall equinox on the regular since 1985; this year, at least, its unremarkable, malt-dominated profile does little to commend it against younger offerings. Some old-timers still held up, however. Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale is approaching its 20th anniversary and, with the typical Dogfish love for extremes, presented a bold, brown sugar-infused ale in a bottle featuring an unhinged teddy bear chomping down on a poor, innocent gourd. Happy (preemptive) Halloween.
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