Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pumpkin Ale Primer

Seasonal beers are nothing new, especially in the craft beer section. Sam Adams practically has it down to a science (or rather, literally has it down to a science since their team of chemists has to consistently deliver the same product year after year.) Autumn is a particularly bewildering season; almost every brewery out there is doing a pumpkin ale. You'd practically need to take out a third home equity loan in order to try them all. I thought I'd propose a few simple guidelines to help:

Guideline #1: Crap with pumpkin is still crap.

You might be surprised to know that Budweiser (or Anheuser-Busch) comes in a pumpkin variety called Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. I guess they realized that Bud Pumpkin sounds pretty gross. I had the misfortune of tasting this beer, and I wasn't surprised at how watery, flavorless, and low quality it was. It tasted like somebody added artificial pumpkin flavoring, sugar, and cinnamon candy to a bud (but it was cheap and I think that's the idea.)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Dogfish Head releases Punk annually, which is a spiced primarily with cinnamon, moderately sweet, and full-bodied (high ABV) brown ale. It's priced similarly to other Dogfish head seasonal brews, but is well worth the money. I even cook with it sometimes by adding it to my stuffing.

You need to use your opinion of the brewery when selecting a Pumpkin Ale. There are a lot of inexpensive middle of the road options from large breweries. For instance  Blue Moon (Coors)  makes Harvest Moon, Sam Adam's has Harvest Pumpkin Ale, and Saranac has Pumpkin Ale (how creative.) Many of these are terrible, so be your own judge and buy single bottles first.

Guideline #2: Choose food wisely.

See how you feel about the following choices to gauge whether you should inflict your seasonal beer on party guests.

  1. Pumpkin Ale with a traditional turkey dinner.
  2. Pumpkin Ale with pumpkin pie.
  3. Pumpkin Ale with pizza.
  4. Pumpkin Ale with Chinese food.
If you were iffy on 3 and cringed at 4, you've got the right idea. Spicy beer competes with the food being served, so you need to match it up. If the addition of cinnamon and nutmeg would make the food taste like the inside of a garbage pail at a busy cafeteria then it might not be the best time for pumpkin ale.

Generally sweet foods also make beer taste horrible; the extra spicy pumpkin ales can overcome this however. Treat them like "before dinner" or "after dinner" choices; they are fine with cheese and crackers (but not stinky cheese) or vanilla ice cream. It can go with some meals like turkey with mashed potatoes and stuffing but be wary.

Guideline #3: Read the byline.

"Pumpkin Ale" indicates the seasonal nature and inclusion of pumpkin, but nothing else. The only common traits between these beers are the pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg (and often cardamom and clove.) Some of them are spicy, some of them are sweet, and lots of them are just marketing gimmicks to bring in some extra money. Read the short description on the bottle, but take it with a grain of salt. They know what people want to hear (spicy, full bodied, and pumpkin,) but lots of times they will say whether it's sweet or spicy.

Guideline #4: Purchase seasonal beer at high volume stores.

Some beer ages well and some does not. This generally has to due with live yeast and a high enough alcohol content to keep the beer from going bad. Also the beer needs to be stored properly and kept out of the sun. Pumpkin Ale is usually not intended to be aged.

Combine the previous idea with the limited time period that people want to buy Pumpkin Ale and you'll soon realize that it may not fly off the shelves before the winter beer starts taking up its niche. This means that unless you're buying from a place than consistently sells out of seasonal beer (i.e. popular large shop) you may be buying paleolithic pumpkin ale which is long past its expiration.

Guideline #5: A lot of people like the idea of Pumpkin Ale but not the flavor.

This may come as a shock, but lots of people don't like spices in beer. Pumpkin ale is unfortunately so varied in quality and style that it's impossible to endorse as a serious variety. The novelty of pumpkins and Halloween sells lots of crap around this time of year, and beer is no different. I would wager a guess that most of the pumpkin ale sold is sold to people who will not like it.

For those of us with more adventurous tastes, there are certainly gems to be found with this variety. My standout superstar is Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale because it is exceptionally spicy, but that same statement has been used to describe it negatively in several reviews. Personal tastes are so important with Pumpkin Ale that I can't seriously recommend any particular one.

The best advice I can give is buy one bottle each of a whole bunch that seem appealing and taste them. If you don't like it, give it to the trick or treaters.

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