October is an exciting month for brewers and drinkers alike, and not just because we get to parade around in our favorite superhero tights without the neighbors looking at us funny. It’s also when the Oktoberfest Lagers are released, a special time in any brewer’s heart, as well as the fall seasonal brews, which include the increasingly popular pumpkin beers. Imagine all of the great smells and flavors of Halloween and Thanksgiving crammed into single bottle.
According to legend, however, pumpkin beers were born of necessity not bold brewers seeking new flavors. Originally brewed by those darned malt-scarce pilgrims in colonial times, they turned to the seasonal gourds to replace the needed malts, and thus gave birth to pumpkin beer. Even more to be thankful for! George Washington himself reportedly brewed his own Pumpkin Porter. Nowadays, pumpkin beers make a festive, tasty treat as Halloween and Turkey Day approach.
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 rich fall spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, making them a perfect paring for many classic fall dishes.
Each fall season, more and more of these pumpkin beers emerge, and currently I’m astonished at the number on the shelves. In 2010, the inaugural “The Great Pumpkin Challenge” was held where nine widely-available craft, micro, and big box pumpkin brews were carefully selected for a blind tasting.
This year we’re going upscale and reviewing three high-octane gourd brews. Recently, “The Great Imperial Pumpkin Challenge” was held, a high-powered (and pricey) pumpkin beer tasting to help determine the best 8.0+ ABV gourd beers in the land (not reviewed in the 2010 challenge) and crown the triumphant, majestic “Imperial Pump-King”.
1st Place “Imperial Pump-King 2012″ (Tie):
PumKing: Southern Tier Brewing Company – This medium-bodied 8.6% ABV dusky orange-hued brew out of New York smells of cracked grain, toasted malt, and a hint of pumpkin. Nutmeg hits the tongue initially with mild caramel and pumpkin following close behind. The finish is lush and creamy with buttery vanilla flavors, grainy malt, and just a touch of booze. A unique, rich and velvety take on the style. Buy a few bottles for Thanksgiving as PumKing would pair perfectly with Pumpkin Pie a la mode.
1st Place “Imperial Pump-King 2012” (Tie):
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin: Shipyard Brewing Company – A cool, orange label with a jack-o-lantern and a gold-foiled top catch the eye while perusing the shelf. In the glass, it’s tangerine-copper in color with a white foam head. Aromas of amber malt and cinnamon rise from the glass on this 9% ABV Maryland native. Sweet malt flavors and nutmeg are evident first with a splash of vanilla and pumpkin mid-sip. The finish is cinnamon with a little alcohol and hop bitterness to boot. The Smashed Pumpkin is medium-heavy bodied with a firm malt backbone. Overall, it’s nicely balanced (not overly sweet) with plenty of rich malts, pumpkin, and spices.
Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale: Hoppin’ Frog Brewery– A one-of-a-kind fun label makes this Ohio beer irresistible at the local beer mega mart. It’s predictably orange-amber in color with a fantastic nose of cinnamon and ginger. The 8.4% ABV Double Pumpkin starts off with ginger and clove flavors. Some solid pumpkin notes follow and the finish is spicy cinnamon. On the lighter side both in flavor and body (and to be honest a little watery) for an Imperial Pumpkin brew but it would be good place to start for novice gourd beer drinkers.