Beer and Pavement

On Pumpkin Beers

Posted in Beer by SM on September 21, 2011

The pumpkin beer is a strange, strange thing. Either people crave it, always in-search of the perfect pumpkin beer, or they hate them, preferring to drink a Märzen or even stouts and porters during autumn months. I used to belong to the former group. I don’t know that I ever loved pumpkin ales, but I was certainly always on the lookout for the perfect one.

There have been a few pumpkin ales that have satisfied my needs over the years. Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale tastes and looks like it is boozier than it really is. There’s not a load of heat, but it has the thin, alcohol-y feel and almost no head of a high ABV brew. The Dogfish Head Punkin is another I’ve enjoyed. This is a malty take on the fall classic. Finally, Southern Tier’s Pumpking is the bready, vanilla-dominated version many a beer geek crave.

Interestingly, for me, all three of these beers feature more of a pumpkin flavor than a cinna-nutmeg bomb that tastes like pumpkin pie in a glass. The spices are typically too heavy in pumpkin ales, making them just another failed homebrew experiment with spice[1]. I like that these three beers generally steer away from spice and actually showcase the pumpkin.

That said, even the pumpkin ales I’ve liked eventually grow old[2]. After a while, I feel like I’m drinking vegetables. In fact, I had sworn off this season’s offerings in favor of other autumnal beers. Bottles of liquid pumpkin pie or vegetable just don’t do it for me[3].

Now, there was once a completely different pumpkin ale that got me thinking there could be potential for the style. Of course, it’s the highest rated pumpkin ale on RateBeer and it happens to come from one of my favorite breweries, Jolly Pumpkin. JP’s La Parcela didn’t blow me away, but it did help me question what could be done with a pumpkin ale under the correct brewer-ship. The idea of a pumpkin beer that is a bit sour and features other flavors outside of nutmeg and cinnamon really intrigued me. However, this was not a fantastic beer for me.

So, the search continued…

And like I said, I thought I had sworn off pumpkin ales. That’s when New Belgium’s Kick hit the store shelves. Kick was the new sour pumpkin ale put out on NB’s Lips of Faith Series…

Lips of Faith is one of the better brands of beers put out by a large craft brewer. Like Boulevard, New Belgium uses less-challenging flagship beers to fund forays into Belgian-styles or even Belgo-American fusions[4]. I am a huge fan of the series. Although I don’t like a ton of NB beers, Lips of Faith brews are always interesting and often quite good. You know what I think of La Folie and that’s just the beginning as far as this series is concerned.

Kick is actually a collaboration with Seattle’s Elysian Brewery. Elysian[5] brought the pumpkin and New Belgium brought the sour in the form of cranberry[6]. The result is a pleasantly subtle experience with just a touch of tartness. I get more cranberry from this beer than I get pumpkin. In fact, this beer is subtle in every aspect, but the tartness is its clear strength.

So, the pumpkin beer I’ve now decided is okay to drink is the one that doesn’t really taste that much like pumpkin. What’s the point? Why drink a pumpkin beer that doesn’t really taste of gourd? Well, maybe I don’t actually like pumpkin beers.

And what does pumpkin add to a beer? Sweetness? Mostly, I think it has to do with the incessant spicing  home brewers do to their beers[7]. The pumpkin ale is an opportunity to spice your beer like a pumpkin pie. For my money, the addition of chocolate[8] (La Parcela) or cranberry (Kick) is far more interesting than anything associated with pumpkin pie.

This brings up another point that’s been alluded to in describing Kick: subtlety. I want to give this topic its due, but I would be remiss not putting the idea out there that subtlety is maybe just a nice way of saying “flavorless” or “bland.” I don’t think that’s the case with Kick, but it’s a topic to discuss down the road.

Anyway, my search for the great pumpkin ale has ended with Kick. It’s not exactly where I thought I’d end or the beer others would suspect, but it’s a nice fall beer nonetheless.

1What is it with home brewers and spices? They skimp on hops, but spice the hell out of every pumpkin or winter warmer they brew. And since most craft brewers started out as home brewers, this despicable practice carries on.
2Sometimes quite literally. I bought two sixers one year of Schlafly’s version and quickly wished I hadn’t. I think I actually tossed a couple of bottles and used a couple more for pumpkin beer bread.
3Apparently, they do it for some. The displays this year for Schlafly’s Pumpkin ale are huge and the biggest event at Flat Branch (brewpub here in Columbia) is the pumpkin beer release.
4Some breweries don’t go Belgo-American and typically brew big, extreme beers on the flagship’s profit margins.
5Elysian and I have quite a history. I was once in a bind in Seattle (long story). A friend took me to Elysian to sort things out. That day, I discovered that beers could feature citrus flavors without a lime jammed down their necks. That was like 14 years ago(!).
6This is where I imagine the Wonder Twins go into brewing and take the form of their most important ingredients. “Form of two-row!” “Form of Centennial!”
7See. I hate spice in my beer.
8Particularly chocolate from my friend, Alan. He also supplies Northern Brewer with their cocoa nibs.

9 Responses

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  1. Rob said, on September 22, 2011 at 10:12 am

    You know, it’s like we shared one brain yesterday. After reviewing Punkin Ale, I gave my own similar rendition of “I don’t give a shit about pumpkin beers anymore”. If you are interested…


    • builderofcoalitions said, on September 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

      Yeah, I saw that. Someone else did a review of Pumking, but I didn’t get around to reading it. It’s funny how such a beer style is so popular…either to enjoy or bash. It seems after I finish my second Kick, I will take a long break from pumpkin beers.

  2. Holly said, on September 22, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I bought a sixer of the Schlafly and ended up using two to make a double batch of beer bread. The recipe I use is more awesome than the one you linked, though, because you melt an entire stick of butter and bake it with the melted butter poured over the top. Yum! I added a half teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice (basically contains the three your linked recipe called for) for the entire double batch.

    I’ll try the Kick if I get the chance, but I’m skeptical because I’m not fond of sours (you know La Folie and I are not compadres). Meanwhile, I’ve found the occasional Oktoberfest beer that I liked for a minute, but I’ve yet to find a pumpkin that I really want to drink more than once. The Schlafly made for a great bread, though!

    • builderofcoalitions said, on September 22, 2011 at 11:40 am

      The recipe I linked was the one I used. That blog was my first foray into beer blogging. It’s a good recipe and easier on the arteries than the one you suggest.

      This sour is not really anything like La Folie. It’s subtle, in case you didn’t catch that in my post.

  3. carriethewade said, on September 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I can usually only have one glass of pumpkin beer per year. The only way to truly enjoy it is heavy moderation because it sure as shit will lose its loveliness on that second pint.

  4. mciocco said, on September 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

    I’m still exploring the world of pumpkin beers, but I can see how they’d get old fast.

    As for spicing, I don’t know that I’d call the practice “despicable” – lots of fantastic Belgian and Belgian-inspired beers are lightly hopped and spiced. The trick is to balance the spice with the other flavors, which is very difficult. With hops, there are measurements and calculations you can make. If you know the alpha acid content of the hops, it’s easy to balance the rest of the brew to match. Spices don’t have any such easy calculations. That’s not an excuse, but it does represent a challenge to a brewer and when done right, it adds subtle flavors and complexity without overwhelming. Apparently in Belgium, they say that if you can pinpoint the spice in a beer, you’re doing it wrong. It should impart subtle flavors, but not so much that you can tell what it is…

    Lots of breweries overdo it, especially when it comes to a spice like cinnamon (and, as such, Pumpkin beers tend to suffer), but there are plenty of breweries that do a really good job with their spicing. Ommegang comes to mind, but there are plenty of others…

    • builderofcoalitions said, on September 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      OK. “Despicable” was a tad harsh. Belgians do spice correctly. I think it’s the pumpkin pie effect that irks me most.

  5. ben said, on September 29, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been wanting to try the Schlafly Pumpkin Ale, but I know I will regret buying 6. I haven’t seen anyplace local breaking down the sixers. Maybe I need to find some fellow investors.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on September 29, 2011 at 10:12 am

      That’s one way to handle it. You might also be able to find it somewhere on tap. Be aware that those mixed packs are mostly beers that have sat too long on the shelves.

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