Just as it was last year, pumpkin spice EVERYTHING is dominating the retail landscape in Fall 2015. That means food companies are finding innovative new ways to foist pumpkin pie flavoring into such products as Twinkies, cookies, cereal, and cat litter. The internet is bringing the snark, of course, but for me, this means one thing above all others: a windfall of new pumpkin beers.
Last year I abstained from writing a roundup of all the new pumpkin beers there were, opting only to review particular ones of interest. But people continue to ask for recommendations, so I’m bringing the roundup back. This is far from a complete list of what’s available on shelves in Phoenix right now, as I’ll be focusing only on the beers that I’ve never tried before, or that warranted another look with a more refined palette. To see reviews of all the old favorites (and not-so-favorites), see the Reviews page.
As the season progresses, I’ll be continually updating this page with more reviews, so check back often! On to the beers…
Jack-O Traveler Pumpkin Shandy
There’s a particular kind of customer who would truly benefit from the existence of this pumpkin shandy: The non-beer drinker who still wants a Halloweeny drink. And I’ve met several of these people, so this should come as a welcome addition to the lineup. It’s got very, very little beer flavor and LOADS of pumpkin pie flavor, like a carbonated, alcoholic pumpkin juice. Regular beer drinkers may find this far too syrupy and sweet, but for those looking for a pumpkin flavored spirit and aren’t too fond of beer, this is what I’d recommend.
With a bottle like this, and a name taken (possibly on accident) from a seminal punk rock album, I knew I had to try this beer as soon as I became aware of its existence. And while the beer itself doesn’t quite live up to the label in my opinion, it’s still quite good. It just happens to fall into that rather large category of pumpkin beers that are good as plain beers, but lack a strong pumpkin presence. But for anyone who prefers a subtle touch of pumpkin over a blast to the face of it, this is a good one to try.
Alaskan Pumpkin Ale
Alaskan Brewing’s pumpkin beer is a little bolder than your average ale, with notes of brown sugar and a darkness reminiscent of a porter. Pumpkin presence is pronounced but not overpowering. Solid beer.
Mendocino Engine 45 Pumpkin Ale
I have a rule of thumb when it comes to judging pumpkin beers by their labels: Avoid anything that features Norman Rockwell-esque photos of real pumpkins and farms on the label. This one continues to support the validity of that rule. It’s a mediocre beer with barely detectable notes of pumpkin spice. With so many better options out there at the same or lower price, there’s not much reason to grab this one.
I had tried this one a couple years ago – a “big bottle” pumpkin beer touting trumped up claims about its own superiority in the beer landscape. I remember being underwhelmed, but not much else, and thought perhaps my more experienced palette might warm better to it today. Indeed, it’s a quality beer, there’s no doubt about it, but again, the actual pumpkin aspect is placed far in the background. These types of beers have their audience, to be sure, but it’s not me. I like my pumpkin beers to insist upon themselves a little.
Saranac Pumpkin Ale
A Trader Joe’s exclusive (to my understanding), Saranac’s pumpkin ale comes in a unique miniature growler bottle with a glossy metallic jack o’ lantern label – an irresistible sight for me. Sadly, the beer contained within is less than stellar. As a matter of fact, this is one of the “thinnest” tasting beers I’ve ever tried. The pumpkin flavors are noticeable, don’t get me wrong, but the whole thing has a troubling watered down flavor. Fails to live up to the bottle.
Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch
Sam Adams keeps changing the name of its pumpkin beer. First it was simply “Sam Adams Pumpkin Ale”, then “Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale”, and now, “Sam Adams Pumpkin Batch”. It’s a devious plan, because each time it happens I feel a responsibility to try the beer again to see if they changed their formula. And as far as my taste buds are concerned, they haven’t. This is as generic as pumpkin beers get.
Another one with truly amazing label art, Wick For Brains is a light, refreshing beer with moderate levels of pumpkin pie flavoring. I’d call this one a workmanlike, “every day” sort of pumpkin beer. Not bad, not spectacular.
Wasatch Black O’ Lantern
Wasatch Brewing Co. makes one of the rare pumpkin beers that goes hog-wild on pumpkin pie flavoring but misses the mark a bit on the actual “beer” front. I’ve always found it to be tasty, but a little metallic and thin. Their pumpkin stout however, makes a better case for itself. Lots of pumpkin flavor as you’d expect from Wasatch, but with less fizziness and more body. This is another one that would be good to have on hand for every day fall drinkin’.
Ballast Point Pumpkin Down
To be honest, I don’t quite remember this one. I grabbed it at Bevmo and went through it before recording my thoughts, and as evidenced by my failed memory, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I think it was merely OK; a decent beer, with middle of the road pumpkin flavors. Take it with a grain of salt, but I think this beer was thoroughly average.
KBC Pumpkin Ale
I’m promoting this Trader Joe’s exclusive up to the elite “5 jack” club! I’m consistently impressed by how pumpkin-y this beer is without tasting too syrupy sweet or fizzy. And the fact that it’s available at prices comparable to common, every day craft brews is truly remarkable. In fact, its only downside is the limited availability as a Trader Joe’s exclusive. As far as go-to pumpkin beers go, you can’t do much better than this.
Tap Room No.21 Pumpkin Ale
I never find new pumpkin beers at Fry’s grocery store (you may know it as Kroger). Typically they will carry the Sam Adams, Blue Moon, Shock Top, and maybe Buffalo Bill’s pumpkin ales, but nothing more “craft” than that. But lo and behold, this year they not only carry Four Peaks Pumpkin Porter (a beer that’s really catching on a big way in the mainstream), but a new discovery for me: Tap Room Pumpkin Ale. The label wasn’t too promising, favoring down home “harvest” imagery as opposed to Halloween imagery, but of course I bought it. And I regret to say that my usual rule of thumb holds true here: You often CAN judge a pumpkin beer by its label. While this beer has more pumpkin flavor than I’d have expected, it’s disturbingly thin and flat-tasting. There’s zero head and almost no carbonation at all – it literally feels like it was left overnight with the cap off. It’s slightly watery and the flavor vanishes too quickly. There are definitely worse pumpkin beers, but too many better ones to ever recommend this.
You’ll find that pretty much all the reviews above fall into the middle range of quality, right smack dab at the peak of the bell curve. That’s kind of disappointing, but hey, how often do we expect to encounter anything truly remarkable? At any rate, I thought it appropriate to include in this rundown, once again, my absolute top recommendations for pumpkin beer for anyone reading this who wants to try the best of the best. These five are packed to the gills with pumpkin pie flavor, backed up by legitimate quality as beers, and to me represent the taste of Halloween better than all others. Pick them up at Total Wine, or wherever else you can find ’em.
Southern Tier Pumking
Southern Tier Warlock
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
Four Peaks Pumpkin Porter
Another thing I’m occasionally asked is if I’ve ever had a bad pumpkin beer. The answer is yes, of course I have, and you can see in the above reviews that a few failed to hit the mark for me. But as far as the worst of the worst, that title has to go to Indian Wells Spicy Pumpkin Ale. It’s been a few years since I’ve tried it, but I remember it representing everything that can possibly go wrong in a pumpkin beer. Thin, metallic, fizzy, and with artificial flavoring reminiscent of potpourri, this beer tasted as bad as its cheap-looking label. Avoid at all costs.
Finally, there’s the recent emergence of bourbon barrel-aged pumpkin beers. To date, I’ve seen three: Shipyard Bourbon Barrel Smashed Pumpkin, Unita Oak Jacked, and Anderson Valley Pinchy Jeek Barl. All three come from breweries with rock-solid pumpkin ales that have become annual staples for me, and yet somehow, none of these really impress. I don’t think it’s from lack of trying either. Honestly, I just think the flavors of pumpkin pie spice and bourbon don’t mix. A bourbon barrel aged beer is a tough thing to pull off well in and of itself, but to add the pumpkin to it is just a bridge too far, it seems.