Bah Humbug starts early in the season for me. Halloween finds me cloistered in a darkened house ignoring those that brave the dark driveway just in case my naturally ghoulish figure might crack the door and hand out little dollops of sugar. Even my own four grandchildren – they live three houses down the street – know to avoid my abode when they frolic for treats in the neighborhood.
It didn’t always used to be this way. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and as a child, enjoyed the long, balmy fall weather at this time of the year. The ritual always started with watching ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ with my mom and dad before they released us three kids — my brother and sister and I – into the safe streets, unescorted, to see who could come back with the biggest load of candy in the pillowcases we used to haul our booty.
I ended up in Alaska 40 years ago and quickly realized that Trick or Treat had a whole new meaning in the northern climes. Back then, when a high of 10 degrees above zero on October 31 seemed balmy, and crusty vsnow on the ground was the norm, I handed out candy to kids escorted by parents in somewhat of a survival situation. I’d wonder what costume they were wearing because most of the time, the costumes were all but obscured by heavy outer garments and gloves and stocking hats further diminished the experience. One year, I offered hand warmers as an alternative to sugary treats, and at least the parents seemed to appreciate this.
In the years that I ran with a tighter circle of beer friends, we’d set up elaborate routes through the city visiting friends in our own stupid costumes, doing Trick or Beer games. At each stop, we’d go inside, enjoy a foamy treat, then head to the next stop, usually with the host from the previous stop in tow. The host at the last stop threw the most elaborate party, and if Halloween coincided with a Friday or Saturday night, it turned into quite the bash. That ritual’s gone away, too.
One thing that hasn’t evaporated with the changing times is my foray into pumpkin beers at this time of year. These beers are interesting creatures and, at worst, represent spice bombs akin to a pumpkin pie in your face. At best, pumpkin beer represents the gourd itself, with spicing evident, but more in the background. The best pumpkin beers are balanced. Years ago, they used to be consistently pale or amber in various degrees in color, although a pumpkin porter was always a nice, darker treat. Now the style is all over the pumpkin patch with selections ranging from pale to black with everything in between. George and Martha Washington – the reputed inventors of the style — would have much to say about the style today.
It’s not for everybody. Obviously, if you don’t like pumpkin essence, or hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice – the usual characters in most pumpkin beers — don’t waste your time sorting through what’s out there.
If you want to sample a broad cross-section of what pumpkin beer can taste like, tried and true is Seattle-based Elysian Brewing Company’s annual series. Four beers define the series including the more basic Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, the bigger The Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale, the brooding Dark O’ The Moon Pumpkin Stout and the forever interesting Punkuccino Coffee Pumpkin Ale. The last one’s one of my annual favorites.
Rogue Ales (Ashland, Oregon) came out with a pumpkin yam beer this year. It didn’t do much for me. Ghostfish Brewing Company’s (Seattle) Lunar Harvest Pumpkin Ale is more interesting and packs an 8.2 percent alcohol by volume punch.
Missing this year from the lineup from outside is one of my all-time favorites, Southern Tier Brewing Company’s (Lakewood, New York) Pumpking. Pumpking gets my grin because this sweet-centered gem features vanilla and pumpkin pie spices in the nose, but the flavor is sweetish and focuses more on a pie crust, malt and a true pumpkin essence. Lick a pumpkin rind and you’ll get the sensation. At 8.6 percent alcohol by volume a 22-ounce bomber commands some respect. Maybe it will show up before the season runs out.
Why reach for beers from out of state? Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s annual T.R.E.A.T. is an eclectic pumpkin ale I enjoy every year around this time. The beer’s billed as an imperial chocolate pumpkin porter. “Imperial” usually implies “up there,” in a beer, meaning the beer’s “bigger” in one proportion than another than a standard equivalent, so expect a bolder brew. In this case, the beer’s indeed bold.
T.R.E.A.T. stands for “the royal eccentric ale treatment,” but that acronym isn’t broadcast so boldly these days. It doesn’t matter; the beer’s definitely a treat.
Notes from previous years remind me that the beer’s brewed with upwards of 30 different spices on a rather imperial rich porter base, amped up with the addition of cocoa nibs. Sure; you’ll sense the allspice and nutmeg in this 7.8 percent alcohol by volume heady wonder, but this one gets my vote because the spices aren’t obtrusive and are well balanced by the deeper, darker malts and the chocolate notes.
Previously in the 22-ounce bomber bottle format — this is one to be shared with a friend or two — I’m tickled ghoulishly this year to find it released in the more convenient, drinkable 12-ounce cans. You can find this brew on tap at the brewery, on some of your favorite growler bars, or wrapped in glass or aluminum on the shelves of our finer grog shops.
If it’s on tap, Glacier Brewhouse’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale is another brooding beer, with a knee-knocking 9 percent alcohol by volume. This one’s not as sweet as the Midnight Sun version; the spices are more forward facing and the beer finishes drier on the back palate at the end of the swallow.
What’s my treat this year?
I’ve been raiding my vintage collection lately, and a couple of weeks ago, I was pawing around in the dusty boxes in my crawl space and ran across a 2007 Midnight Sun Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter. At 15 years old, I’m curious to see how it held up in the cool, dark cavern where I keep my collection.
This beer goes back to the brewery’s Humpback Jack days and is the predecessor of T.R.E.A.T. I dug out my beer notes from 2007 to reveal that “the Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter is a whole cornucopia of flavors that tantalize and dazzle the palate in so many different ways. This is the second year for the knockout beer that commanded so much respect last year that in addition to making it again, the brewery is bottling it this go-round and it will be a beer with good staying power for any vintage beer collection.” I’d also noted that then brewer, Gabe Fletcher – now at Anchorage Brewing Company – brought in specialty spices from a high end dealer in Chicago to make the beer. Now, if I just had a Southern Tier Pumpking to pair with it, my night would be even more special.
There are more pumpkin beers to choose from, but they’re fleeting. If you’re curious, I’d get after them. These beers usually show up in mid-September and somewhat compete with Oktoberfest beers. They hang around until Thanksgiving when they start to lose traction and winter seasonal and Christmas beers start to command the market.