Pumpkin Beer Roundup 2014

It’s back! My not-so-comprehensive, totally subjective reference guide to pumpkin beers available for purchase in the greater Phoenix area. Over the past several years I’ve made strong efforts to try every single pumpkin beer I can find at breweries and liquor stores, and I dare say I’ve amassed a good range of experience with them.

The year 2014 has been utterly unprecedented in terms of how many pumpkin beers have hit the store shelves in Phoenix. So far, I’ve found seven that I’ve never tried before, and it’s not thanks to more rigorous searching – my source has been almost exclusively Total Wine stores. As growing popularity always does, the deluge of pumpkin beers has even started a small backlash online, from people who don’t get why this whole pumpkin thing is such a big deal. They can whine all they want – to me there’s no such thing as too many options when it comes to this.

Pumpkin beers are rated on a scale of one to five jack o’ lanterns (or Jacks). This year’s list only includes pumpkin beers I’ve had in 2014. For previous years’ pumpkin beer roundups, as well as reviews of individual beers, see the Reviews page. 

The Top Three

Southern Tier Warlock
As stated in my review, this beer gave me an existential crisis. After so many years and so many pumpkin beers consumed, how could this newcomer instantly rise to the top of the list? Well, it has. Not only is the pumpkin pie flavor ridiculously pronounced, and the alcohol content satisfyingly high, it has the honor of being the only pumpkin stout I’ve seen on store shelves, which means coffee and chocolate flavors are layered atop the pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla. This beer is chocolate covered Halloween in a bottle.

Rating: 5jack plus

Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
This perennial favorite just seems to get better year after year. As you’ll see as you continue to read these reviews, my tastes for pumpkin beer specifically have evolved considerably since I first had the idea to do a “pumpkin beer roundup”. But it’s still hard to believe I once considered this inferior to the more commonplace Pumpkinhead by the same brewery. It’s not even in the same league. Smashed Pumpkin may not taste like chocolate but it’s just as much Halloween in a bottle as Warlock.

Rating: 5jack

Four Peaks Pumpkin Porter
A local favorite, and one the Phoenix populace yearns for every single October. It’s an event when Four Peaks announces the release date for pumpkin porter and supplies normally run out by Halloween. Thankfully, you can now buy it in 6 pack cans without even needing to make the trek to the brew pub. This is a smoky, chocolatey pumpkin porter that never fails to conjure images of Halloween when I drink it.

Rating: 5jack

Honorable Mentions

Southern Tier Pumking
Pumking really belongs in the top three, if I’m being honest. It’s just about as good as its brother Warlock, but as I tend to prefer stout beers overall, this one was knocked down a rung on the ladder. But that’s not entirely fair. Anyone with the slightest appreciation for pumpkin flavored beer should go head over heels for this. An extreme level of pumpkin flavor layered with vanilla and nutmeg, plus the same beer snob-approved ABV of 8.6%.

Rating: 5jack

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
The most famously well-regarded of all pumpkin beers, and it earns its distinction by being a damn fine pumpkin beer. One of the more complex ones flavor-wise, when I was young and foolish I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But time and experience has corrected my perspective. The typical pumpkin pie flavors are present and accounted for, balanced out by a somewhat sharp, hoppy accompaniment.

Rating: 5jack

All The Rest

Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
Well I certainly didn’t see this one coming. A former member of the Top Three demoted to a mere “everything else” beer? And with an entire Jack lost in the process? What could be the explanation for this usurp? Just experience, I regret. As a novice, Pumpkinhead’s full frontal assault of pumpkin pie flavoring won me over easily, but as a seasoned pumpkin beer drinker of many years, I can now see the chinks in the armor. While Pumpkinhead’s special blend of pumpkin pie spices still holds a near and dear place in my heart, I recognize now that it tastes slightly artificial and syrupy. More like pumpkin soda than pumpkin beer. I must stress, it’s still a favorite of mine, and a Halloween tradition, but my opinion has cooled. I now worship its big brother, Smashed Pumpkin.

Rating: 4jack

Mudshark Peaceful Pumpkin
Local Phoenix Brewery Mudshark throws its hat into the ring, with fairly disappointing results. Here’s the description on the bottle: “Mudshark Brewery rendition of the Great Pumpkin, this medium body ale is spiced with your grandma’s favorite blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and coriander. You get it this flavorful ale for the coming of Fall.” Apart from that weird grammar in the last sentence, did you notice anything strange about that description? I’ll give you a hint – this is the ingredients list: Allspice, caroway, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, coriander, barley, hops, yeast, and water. No pumpkin in sight. And you can taste its absence. The flavors remind you of pumpkin pie, but with a crucial component lacking. Still a decent tasting beer, but missing the one thing it purports to be.

Rating: 2jack

New Belgium Pumpkick
This is an interesting one. A blend of pumpkin and cranberry flavors make this one stand out from the glut of pumpkin beers showing up on the market. I’m less than thrilled with New Belgium beers in general, but Pumpkick is pretty respectable. I can taste both the pumpkin and cranberry in the right ratios, although neither flavor is particularly pronounced. I’d consider this a solid every day type pumpkin beer.

Rating: 3halfjack

Uinta Punk’n
Speaking of every day pumpkin beers, I’d say this one is and always has been my go-to choice for a pumpkin ale to drink throughout the Halloween season. It’s simply well-balanced, drinkable, and gets the job done as far as inspiring Halloween spirit within your heart. There’s not much more to say than that.

Rating: 4jack

Anderson Valley Fall Hornin’ Pumpkin Ale
Don’t ask me what Fall Hornin’ means, but Anderson Valley’s pumpkin ale is yet another good “every day” pumpkin beer. Fairly pronounced pumpkin flavors with the expected cinnamon and nutmeg accompaniment.

Rating: 3halfjack

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale
This was the first pumpkin beer I picked up in 2014, way back in the pre-season month of August. I remember previously awarding this one a measly two jacks in times past, but I think it deserves a little more than that. I prefer it to Sam Adam’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale which I consider the definition of mediocrity in pumpkin beer. Still, the Blue Moon is nothing terribly special. Let’s call it two and a half Jacks.

Rating: 2halfjack

Howe Sound Pumpkineater
See my review for the nitty gritty on this one. The long and short of it: A very good pumpkin beer, but not quite on the right end of the value equation. The high price and exclusive availability in 1 liter springtop bottles relegates this one to the “singular occasion” category.

Rating: 4halfjack

Buffalo Bill’s Original Pumpkin Ale
Probably the most “middle of the road” pumpkin beer on this entire list, Buffalo Bill’s has been around for what seems like forever, is easily found in most grocery stores in Phoenix, and has nothing particular to set it apart from the rest of the increasingly crowded pumpkin beer market. That being said, there are advantages to this kind of ubiquity. In a pinch (say, you’re on your way to a Halloween party), there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a 6 pack of this to get a decent pumpkin fix.

Rating: 3jack

Anderson Valley Pinchy Jeek Barl Bourbon Barrel Pumpkin Ale
Whew! That title’s a mouthful. I was anxious to find out what a “big bottle” version of Anderson Valley’s pumpkin ale would be like, considering they make one of my favorite “every day” pumpkin beers. As the name states, this is a pumpkin ale aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels – another brand new take. If that flavor combination sounds unusual to you – whiskey and pumpkin – you’re right to be suspicious. It’s… odd. When poured into a goblet I was shocked at the black color, black as a stout with little to no light passing through. I detected very little pumpkin aroma on the initial sniff. When sipped, the influence of the bourbon barrel was prominent, in fact it was just about all I could taste beyond the typical beer flavors. I don’t normally drink Wild Turkey so it brought Jack Daniels to mind. Eventually if I closed my eyes and really breathed it in, I could taste the mildest note of pumpkin spice, but the fact of the matter is it failed the most important test of a pumpkin beer: To conjure thoughts of Halloween. A good beer, but not much of a pumpkin beer.

Rating: 3jack

Alaskan Pumpkin Porter
Yet another new one for 2014 – henceforth dubbed “The Year of (Pumpkin) Beer” – Alaskan Brewing Co.’s contribution to the pumpkin beer phenomenon sat nonchalantly on the shelf at Total Wine, and lord knows how many times I missed it being there. The case art doesn’t scream “pumpkin”; there are no grinning jack o’ lanterns or a preponderance of orange to be seen – only the image of an enormous pumpkin in the back of a classic pickup truck. It’s most certainly a porter, as I’ll soon attest, but curiously the bottle, bereft of the fanciful descriptions that have become in vogue with pumpkin beers of late, says “ale brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar and spices”. The flavor is almost ridiculously smoky – approaching campfire levels. As a matter of fact I’d describe this beer in one sentence as “pumpkins roasted over a camp fire”. Pumpkin flavor is front and center but largely absent its usual cohorts of pumpkin pie spice. You can taste the brown sugar but no nutmeg, cinnamon, or vanilla. The pumpkin flavor reaches the tongue first and the smokiness lingers long in the aftertaste. Overall, a strong showing.

Rating: 4jack

KBC Pumpkin Ale
The decidedly non-fanciful name of this one belies its quality. I suppose like wine, sometimes the plainest labels contain the best product. This Trader Joe’s exclusive (to my knowledge) is one of the most pumpkin pie-esque beers I’ve ever tasted. It gives Shipyard Pumpkinhead and Wasatch a run for their money in that regard. Goes down clean, without the artificial aspertame quality you sometimes see in pumpkin beers like this. If this were more widely available it would probably be my number one “every day” pumpkin beer of the season.

Rating: 4halfjack

Hermitage Fruit Crate Pumpkin Ale
Hmmmm. So, I was dubious about this one from the start. I had never before heard of Hermitage Brewing Co., let alone their pumpkin beer, and their 1 liter bottles of pumpkin ale were sitting tucked away, almost hidden, in the seasonal section at Total Wine. Still, I HAD to try it. At 9% ABV it’s obviously going for something here, but sadly, I turned out to be right about my misgivings. There is virtually no pumpkin to be found here. As a beer, it’s fine… I guess. It kinda tastes like something a home brewer might make before they’ve earned their stripes. If I close my eyes and really focus, I can kinda… sorta perceive a little pumpkin, but man, it’s barely there. I can’t say I’m disappointed because there were no expectations but, I’d say avoid.

Rating: 1halfjack

Wasatch Black O’ Lantern Pumpkin Stout
Ohhhhhh yeah. Two pumpkin stouts in one year? It’s a Halloween miracle! Wasatch does make a respectable pumpkin ale – see previous Roundups for the skinny on that one – and Black O’ Lantern is a great name with some great label art. I had pretty high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed, but also not blown away. Strangely, the all-out pumpkin pie spice flavor assault that characterizes Wasatch’s pumpkin ale was downplayed considerably in the stout. But that’s not to its detriment. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to gravitate to more nuanced pumpkin beers. But for a beer that fancies itself an imperial stout, it’s oddly mild. More Guinness than Ten Fiddy. But I’m into that. The smoky flavor balances well with the pumpkin side of it. I could see this becoming a staple, “every day” pumpkin beer, provided they continue to brew it.

Rating: 4jack

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