If you've ever cooked with pumpkin, you know that the glunk you spoon out of the can (or the fruit) gives your pie texture and color, but very little else. Yes, pumpkin has a delicate, fresh scent, and a roasted pumpkin takes on some nice caramel notes, but the big gourd serves mainly as a delivery system for spices—cloves, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. The real test of a good pumpkin dish is in the balance of the added flavors.
The same is true of pumpkin beers, which have been a seasonal special ever since Bill Owens, renegade brewer at Buffalo Bill's, the Bay Area's first brewpub, created a pumpkin ale in 1985.
Pumpkin beers have grown so popular that when I came to review them last year just before Halloween, they were already gone—sold out with no new deliveries planned. Brewers and retailers are apparently chary of having any stock left after Thanksgiving, so the pumpkin specials arrive earlier and earlier. Mimicking the crass retail practice of putting up Christmas decorations in October, the first pumpkin brews of the year landed back in July. Sacrilege.
There are at least 20 pumpkin beers on local shelves. They fall into three categories: conventional pumpkin ale, pumpkin beers brewed with a lager or wheat beer base and (a newer variant) stronger "imperial" pumpkin beer. Here are a few stand-outs.
Cottonwood Pumpkin Ale, Carolina Beer Co.
Liquid pie! Reddish amber gold with a tight, tan head. Grandma would be proud of the aroma: The spices are pronounced and very well balanced. Flavors of warm, woody clove, cinnamon and brown sugar. In the biscuity, bready flavors, I even imagined a touch of the piecrust. (4.5%)
Pumpkin Ale, Smuttynose Brewing
Bright harvest gold, its head topped with moussey foam that dissipates quickly. Soft, almost floral aroma of ginger, brown sugar and clove, with a little browned piecrust. A distinctive brown spice bite, with graham cracker maltiness. Hop bite in the finish may be out of place for pie fans. (5.6%)
Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Brooklyn Brewery
Yellow-gold color, with an off-white head. Lightly spiced aroma. Lots of carbonation, crisp and malty, like a well-made mainstream beer with allspice. The flavor delivers delicate pie spices and a flinty, metallic note. Some hop bitterness, resulting in a pale ale with a hint of spice. (5%)
Harvest Time Pumpkin Ale, Big Boss Brewing Co.
Pours orange-copper with a light ecru head. Aromas of banana taffy and tropical fruits. More banana and tropical fruit in the flavor, plus 'Nilla Wafer cookies, light spicy pie filling. Thicker, slightly slippery mouthfeel, with tannins and a little hop bitterness in the finish. (5.5%)
Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale, Coors Brewing Co.
Deep pumpkin gold. Aroma carries an undercurrent of nutmeg and fresh pumpkin. Wheat graininess, with a touch of tannin. Scant pumpkin, but lots of nutmeg. Dry, spiced finish. (5.7%)
Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat, Anheuser-Busch
Grafts a pumpkin beer onto a Belgian wit, with interesting results. Brewed with citrus peel and coriander, which really lift the flavor. Maybe we should add these ingredients to pumpkin pie. (5.2%)
Terrapin Pumpkinfest, Terrapin Brewing Co.
A lager that combines Oktoberfest and pumpkin ale. Medium greenish amber in the glass. Sweet squash aromas, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. On the palate it's hard to detect spices, but it is sweet, malty, clean and pleasant. (6.1%)
Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Weyerbacher Brewing Co.
Deep copper in the glass, short-lasting white head. Allspice, nutmeg nose. Unusual in that it also uses cardamom, which gives a suggestion of aromatic mint. Big flavors, with resinous hints from cardamom, herbal tones, cloves and fruitcake. (8%)
Smashed Pumpkin, Shipyard Brewing Co.
Golden, with a big yellow-white head. Candy corn aroma, orange Starburst candy, strawberry Pixy Stix. Wheat lightens the brew. Slightly metallic finish. The brewery suggests mixing the pumpkin beer with their Blue Fin Stout for a winter warmer, which sounds delicious. (9%)
The Great Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Clipper City Brewing Co.
Copper colored, with a creamy head. Pie spice aroma is potent but well balanced. Flavor is a mélange of dark spices, with fruitcake and raisins. Viscous mouth feel, chewy; then metallic hops—maybe it's the pie pan. A rustic, agricultural take on pumpkin, with some alcohol heat. (8%)
Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Aged in Oak Barrels, Uinta Brewing Co.
Deep ruby-tinged copper. Bourbon and vanilla aromas. Thick and resinous, but very drinkable and rather boozy. It could pass for a Belgian dubbel, with spice, plums and other stone fruit. Not very pumpkiny, but it could certainly win over friends. (10.31%)
Imperial Pumking, Southern Tier Brewing Co.
Golden color with little head—it looks innocent enough. Aromas from pureed pumpkin, but earthy, rather than bakery aromas. Flavors of ginger ale, creamy vanilla, cookie dough and candied yams. Minimal hops, but some bitterness to remind you it's beer. (8.5%)