The great pumpkin beer challenge: The winners and losers

Pump-king Challenge
Courtesy of Lisa Colburn

October is a special time of year for brewers and drinkers alike: The Oktoberfest Lagers are released, as well as the fall seasonal brews, including the increasingly popular pumpkin beers. According to legend, pumpkin beers were originally brewed by those darned malt-scarce pilgrims in colonial times and George Washington himself reportedly  brewed his own Pumpkin Porter. Nowadays, pumpkin beers make a festive, tasty treat as Halloween approaches.

Pumpkin beers aren’t really a distinct style of beer per se and as a result there are loads of variations on this holiday brew, kind of like the ‘ole Jack-O’-Lantern itself. Done well, these specialty beers offer some delicious pumpkin flavors as well as some fall spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove.

Each fall season, more and more of these pumpkin beers emerge, and currently there is an astonishing number on the shelves. Recently “The Great Pumpkin Challenge” was held, a pumpkin beer blind tasting to help determine the best pumpkin beers in the land and crown the triumphant, majestic “Pump-King”.

Nine widely-available craft, micro and big box pumpkin brews were carefully selected from the local beer mega-store and tasted side-by-side with the panel of reviewers taking notes and grading each beer. None of the reviewers knew which beer they were tasting and sampled each beer multiple times with palate cleansers required between each beer sample. Taste is subjective, of course, but the results were surprisingly consistent.

1st Place “Pump-King 2010”
Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Weyerbacher Brewing Co.
A delicious and phenomenal pumpkin beer from an up-and-coming Easton, Pennsylvania craft brewery. It received all A’s — even an A+ — from the reviewers. Basically, everyone‘s #1 choice. Comments included: a nice, spicy nose; terrific complexity; dessert like; hints of maple and vanilla, along with a nice combination of pumpkin and spice flavors. To avoid the night finishing up in jail, this 8.0 % ABV pumpkin brew is best enjoyed at home while handing out and over-indulging on Halloween candy.

2nd Place (Tie)
Pumpkin Ale,
Smuttynose Brewing Co. Rated the same as Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead Ale, picking a winner was as tough as the “Jacob vs. Edward” dilemma for teenage (and older) girls. The real winners: The drinkers. Unique and done made, this pumpkin ale from craft brewery Smuttynose (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) had an interesting pumpkin, malt-y, spicy, perfume-y aroma (compliments of the hops). Tasting spicy and hoppy with subtle pumpkin notes intermingling, this complex ale is fantastic. Would be a great beverage choice while telling ghost stories around the campfire on Halloween eve.

2nd Place (Tie)
Pumpkinhead Ale, Shipyard Brewing Co.
The Pumpkinhead from Portland, Maine’s Shipyard Brewery was rated the same as the Smuttynose and each received all A’s and A-’s. Shipyard’s offering smells devilishly good — waves of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove all meet the nose. Light and refreshing yet complex and spicy, this light- to medium-bodied, drinkable ale had some sweet malt flavors and an interesting “gingerbread” flavor. Bring a case of the 5.1 ABV Pumpkinhead Ale to a Halloween party and be a hit with all the ghouls! Would also pair well with the movie Sleepy Hollow.

3rd Place
Punkin Ale, Dogfish Head Brewery
The Punkin Ale from the venerable, craft beer powerhouse out of Delaware received all B or B+ grades. Everyone commented on the fragrant cinnamon and brown sugar nose and the sweet, yummy finish. Dessert-like with a little complexity and a touch of heat from the alcohol (7.0 ABV), the Punkin Ale will keep all the witches and goblins happy on Halloween night.

4th Place
Pumpkinfest, Terrapin Beer Company
Athens, Georgia’s own Terrapin Beer Co. creatively mates two fall favorites, an authentic Oktoberfest Lager with a Pumpkin beer to create one fantastic fall brew. The Pumpkinfest had the most pumpkin flavor and but was only lightly spiced. It was rated either a B or B+ by every reviewer. Everyone enjoyed the sweet finish and thought it was a little one-dimensional but still a good tasting pumpkin beer. A great choice if going to an Oktoberfest-Costume party or masquerading as a non-Nazi German (hopefully no one wears a Nazi costume) for Halloween.

5th Place
Post Road Pumpkin Ale,
Brooklyn Brewery The lightly-spiced Post Road from New York’s Brooklyn Brewery received all B grades from the judges. This easy-drinking pumpkin ale had a sweet malt nose with a hint of floral. Light-bodied and clean, it was nicely spiced– the clove really stood out. Overall, a satisfying pumpkin brew but not outstanding. A bloody good Halloween party choice for the non-craft beer crowd.

6th Place
Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale,
Blue Moon Brewing Co. (Coors) The medium-bodied macro brewery offering had a respectable showing, it received C+ ratings and was drinkable. It had a slight pumpkin flavor and was lightly spiced with a little depth and a sweet caramel malt finish. It doesn’t taste too much like a pumpkin beer but isn’t half bad. Those who dress as themselves for Halloween will appreciate this one.

7th Place
Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Sam Adams is known for their high quality microbrew beer but this one had a surprisingly disappointing showing —  every grade was a C or C-. It was clean and light but lacked both pumpkin and spice flavor, although both were faintly noticeable. It did have a cinnamon nose and was drinkable but rather forgettable, overall. It was only available in the fall seasonal variety pack so we do cut Sam Adams some slack. Offer these to the adults chaperoning the kids when the doorbell rings.

8th Place
Pumpkin Jack, Anheuser-Busch
We don’t intentionally add Anheuser-Busch products to blind taste tests just to make fun of them, honest. This beer is not remotely good though and received nothing but D reviews. “Mostly tasteless with no complexity or scent” and “cheap tasting caramel syrup flavored beer” were a couple of comments. Again, this was a blind tasting. This was hands down the worst beer in the bunch, sorry Bud-this one sucks more than Scary Movie 4.

The clear-cut winner was the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale with the Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Shipyard Pumpkinhead slightly behind but still fantastic. Don’t just take our word for it though, try a few and let your tastebud’s decide!

Happy Halloween!


No Comments

  1. I am surprised that Cigar City’s Good Gourd and Southern Tier’s Pumking were not used in this test. Weyerbacher comes close, but these two beers stand above most of the others rated.

  2. Thanks for your comments Mark. Two of the criteria we used in the beer selection process were that they have a wide distribution area and that they are available in 12 ounce bottles.

    Cigar City’s fit neither of those criteria (I think it was only available on tap and growlers), although I’m sure it’s delicious as is most every one of their brews I’ve tried. Actually I’m bummed I didn’t see it in their tasting, I usually stop up there once a month or so and must’ve just missed it.

    Southern Tier’s Pumking is only available in 22 oz. bottles (and in the spendy $7 range)-I’ve had it on tap and I’ll agree it was right up there with the Weyerbacher. If we would have included the larger bottles Shipyards tasty Smashed Pumpkin would’ve been a shoe in too.

    Overall, we were happy to find nine for the tasting although Southhampton, Saranac, and Buffalo Bill’s were three we wanted to include but were sold out:(


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