It’s pumpkin beer season. Let’s get this over with.
It’s funny how palates shift over time. When I first discovered pumpkin beer, I have to admit I was smitten by it. I don’t know what it was, but this was long before IPA was king, and long before dumping any kind of fruit, vegetable or anything else into an IPA – and in copious amounts - to make it different, and therefore marketable, was stylish, and I think it pumpkin beer affected my palate the same way in the last couple of years.
In fact, back then, I use to extol the virtues of those examples that reminded me of a fresh pumpkin pie coming out of the oven, and the more cinnamon, clove, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, mace, and vanilla, the better. I was always on the hunt for that perfect “pumpkin pie in your face” intensity. I didn’t care if I couldn’t find anything that reminded me of beer in what I was drinking.
Still, people are asking me where these beers are this year. Forgive me, Charlie Brown.
Disclaimer: pumpkin ale can be good. There are examples out there that deliver. My palate might be grumpy with winter coming on, and I’m probably in denial or something. My taste for beer has me reaching for more traditional and balanced, even-keel, smooth, easy drinking beers, like a crisp, clean, light pilsner or lager, a good, clean appropriately-hopped American pale ale, an English mild, or, dare I say, something as bold as a rock solid Scottish ale, perfectly done to style. This is the time of year, especially up here, where palate-shift should be pushing me toward the heavies and more robust beers, where pumpkin beer can easily fit in that range, I’m trying to get my palate over that hump.
Just post-dawn of the craft beer movement in the 1980’s, when the seasonal pumpkin beer style became popular, it was what it should be – a nod to a historical style of beer with a tasty flavor profile that’s complimented by the contribution of the gourd and spicing, not overwhelmed by it. Balance is key in this style that often becomes the whipping boy of a brewer’s creativity, especially with spices gone rogue.
Most of what I find today seems gimmicky, and is typically just an amber or medium colored/bodied beer that has a bunch of spices dumped in it, and in such quantity that any semblance of malt or the underlying “beer” foundation is obliterated.
To hell with the populist style guidelines say, here’s what I want in a pumpkin beer. I want a beer that ranges from deep golden to very deep amber. Let’s get some head on it too; a lack of, or low carbonation makes what should be a medium bodied beer cloying. No matter; it’s the aroma and flavor that matter.
I’d better both smell and taste beer as the primary substrate in the concoction first; and that means the beer’s malt and hop profile share center stage with pumpkin, and especially the spices. I want a beer first, with the pumpkin and spicing being contributory, not holding the sole source contract on my mouth.
And, a note on the pumpkin itself. Sure, pumpkin puree or even artificial pumpkin flavor is easier to use and lends to more consistency than the real thing, but I’m not saying that if a brewer doesn’t use real pumpkin, the beer’s doomed to mediocrity; I’ve tasted some excellent beers made both ways. What I am saying is that the pumpkin flavor should be much more subtle than it typically comes across. To me, this leaves room for a broader, drier, more interesting range of flavors than just, plain “fresh baked pumpkin pie.”
Let me explain it this way. This is going to sound weird, but imagine carving a pumpkin with your kids at the kitchen table, and with that fresh pumpkin smell everywhere, and all around you, imagine just leaning forward and licking the pumpkin. Doesn’t that sound fresher? It’s that kind of flavor that makes more sense to me than the cloyingly sweet, overspiced fermented confections that too many pumpkin beers unwittingly become.
Has a former favorite style of mine gone the way of IPA’s? I hope not, as I’m getting ready to use my palate to poke around the market – maybe a bit early in the pumpkin beer season this year – to see if anything had changed, and maybe, perhaps, that I’ve been missing something?
Let’s back up a minute. I’m certainly not saying pass these beers up where you find them. Actually, I won’t be, as I build my list of those I want to chase down on this year’s seasonal hunt. Try every one you encounter, and build your flavor profile by drinking through especially our local examples. Your palate is as good as mine; everyone’s different and that’s what leads to flavor diversity in this broad style.
Watch for pumpkin beers, and beware, because local examples of a seasonal beer go quick. The style is fleeting on the market, and drops off hugely in popularity - as quickly as Alaska’s fall season does - and the style dies off mostly by Thanksgiving every year.
And, dismiss my palate’s temper tantrum; the style isindeed popular this year.
I went to my favorite beer abode – La Bodega in the Metro Mall - to scoop up some spooky samples and didn’t find a whole lot, which just fed my a self-affirmation that I was right, and the style sucked to the point that not much was being made anymore.
Of course, I was wrong. “I don’t know,” I was told by one of the always-in-the-know beer servants there, “when it comes, it goes pretty quickly; we used to have more, but it’s all bought up,” she told me, reminding me to wake up and smell the spices.
A quick confirmatory jaunt over to the Brown Jug Warehouse a couple of blocks away demonstrated the same thing; either I was early in the hunt, or beers within the style were moving quickly. I walked out after a “no sale” breeze-through; I’d already had the ubiquitous Elysian Night Owl that’s on display in six packs, and all of the beers in the half-rack “Pumpkin Pack,” with three each of the Seattle brewery’s Night Owl, a tame and easy drinking basic example in the style, The Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale, a bigger, more bad-assed version, Dark of the Moon, a dark, roasty, and robust interpretation of the style, and Punkuccino Coffee Pumpkin Ale, in the “see, I told you I can dump anything in a style of beer and build a niche” department. Okay, strike that; that was mean. I’ve tried these four beers every year up until this year, and I actually enjoyed Punkuccio quite a bit, maybe more than most of the rest.
I passed on the Sam Adams Pumpkin Ale this year; these early outside baiters can wait: I’m waiting out the local examples as they start to show up.
It’s early, and there are still a lot of Oktoberfest beers on the market. When it comes to popularity, pumpkin beer is a distant second favorite to the O-Fest style that packs a more universal appeal, and a carves out a bigger slice of the market pie. Even though Oktoberfest in Munich actually just ended – the official end date this year was October 3 - the beer style has better staying power; a lot more of its made both locally and on the global market and it sticks around as long as pumpkin beer does, competing for your belly and your budget.
Another contributory issue is that our local breweries don’t often make enough of the quick moving beer to package it and send it to our local grog shops to lounge on the shelves, and not all of our breweries package and distribute their beer. Likely you’ll be better off hunting it down and discovering it yourself at the source. Bonus: doing so makes for a fall scavenger hunt, of sorts, and who would turn down that kind of adventure, especially when it’s for chasing beer?
I can’t tell you what lies ahead in the local pumpkin patch this year, but I’ll be trudging through it, looking for just the right fermented treats for the season. If what I find is beerworthy, balanced and fits my idea of what pumpkin beer should be, you’ll be hearing more about it.