“It’s like every brewer has to make a pumpkin ale now,” said the bearded fellow at Whole Foods’ beer shop. “But if you don’t like any of these,” he continued, gesturing to my shopping bag, “I think you should probably just give up on pumpkin ales.”
Pumpkin ales start popping up everywhere in the fall, becoming more popular every year. But I’ve always found the style to be sickly sweet, heavy, and sometimes over-spiced. So for today’s Battle of the Dishes, I tracked down some of the most critically acclaimed pumpkin ales and tasted them along with a panel of intrepid Fork-in-the-Road-ites to find out once and for all if there are any pumpkin ales out there that don’t taste like pumpkin pie smothered in corn syrup.
I started out with a list of the top-rated pumpkin ales according to Beer Advocate. Unfortunately, it seems that only one out of the top six is available in New York. But I was able to gather five ales that are all relatively highly rated and/or were recommended as good examples of the style by the guy at Whole Foods.
The tasting panel consisted of Robert Sietsema, Rebecca Marx, me, and special guest Foster Kamer. We rated the beers on a scale of 1 to 10 based on, well, how good they tasted.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ale, Ann Arbor, Michigan
La Parcela No. 1 Pumpkin Ale, $15.99 per 750 milliliter bottle at Whole Foods’ beer shop
Tasters first noticed that this is made in a very sour style, somewhat like a Flanders red ale. It’s also aged in oak, so it takes on some earthy-tannic flavors. Rebecca, the beer skeptic in the bunch, said, “It did not completely repel me,” which is actually high praise. And it wasn’t too sweet, which turned out to be a rare quality.
Robert Sietsema: 8
Rebecca Marx: 4
Foster Kamer: 6
Sarah DiGregorio: 6
Average rating: 6
Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, New York
Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale, $7.59 per 1 pint, 6 ounce bottle at Eagle Provisions in Brooklyn
We generally like Southern Tier so we were caught unawares by this brutally sugary beer. “Like liquid pumpkin pie,” said Robert, commenting on the beer’s aroma. It also tasted like pumpkin pie, if pumpkin pie were made mostly of sugar. It’s high-alcohol (8.8 percent), but you’d never know it. “This would be good for bobbing for apples,” said one taster. “You could convince kids to drink this.”
Average rating: 4
Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, Akron, Ohio
Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale, $8.99 for a 1 pint, 6 ounce bottle at Whole Foods’ beer shop
“Too clovey! Oh Jesus!” quoth Robert. Some of us disliked this one even more than Southern Tier, though Hoppin’ Frog is not quite as sweet as Southern Tier. Others were simply put off by how much it tasted like potpourri.
Average rating: 3.25
Coming up, Smuttynose and St. Ambroise …
Smuttynose Brewing Company, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Pumpkin Ale, $1.99 for a single, 12-ounce bottle at Whole Foods’ beer shop
“Let the tasting record show that I’m drinking full cups of each,” said Foster. Noted! Tasters thought that this one has an appealingly mild pumpkin flavor and a pleasantly slack mouthfeel. “It goes down easy like Mr. Pibb,” said Robert. We also noticed a soapy, tannic backbone. It got points for being subtle, rather than overwhelming.
Average Rating: 6.75
St. Ambroise, Brasserie McAuslan Brewery, Quebec, Canada
Pumpkin Ale, $9.29 for a four-pack at Eagle Provisions in Brooklyn
The weary tasting band stared warily at the last cup of beer. “I hope we’ve saved the best for last,” said Foster. I was not feeling hopeful. The aroma was very pumpkin-pie. But on tasting, the beer revealed itself to be anything but cloying. “It tastes the most like pumpkin, but in a clean way,” said one taster, to room-wide agreement. Those nutty, slightly sweet, vegetal flavors that you like in roast winter squash somehow translated to this beer beautifully. Carbonation was low.
Average Rating: 9.125
And so St. Ambroise takes the pumpkin ale Battle of the Dishes in a landslide.
Here are the beers ranked according to their average rating:
1. St. Ambroise, Brasserie McAuslan Brewery, Quebec, Canada
2. Smuttynose Brewing Company, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
3. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ale, Ann Arbor, Michigan
4. Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, New York
5. Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, Akron, Ohio