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A Pumpkin Beer Primer, Plus Our Favorite Examples Of The Style


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Pumpkin is one of the most “American” foods there is. The winter squash is indigenous to the American continent and is a staple of Indigenous American cuisine from coast to coast. To that end, when European colonialist showed up on these shores, they took to using pumpkin to brew their beer — being that barley and other grains for sugar fermentation were unavailable. This tradition lasted well into the 1800s with even George Washington being a big fan of using pumpkin to brew his ale.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. As grain-based foreign agriculture took over, the American continent and people moved into cities and pumpkin fell out of favor. It wasn’t until craft microbrewing started to re-emerge in the 1980s that pumpkin beers saw a comeback. Basically, a small cadre of micro-brewers wanted to bring a traditional and seasonal beer back to their lineups. Cut to 40 years later and pumpkin beers straight up dominate the craft beer market. The Atlantic reported a few years back that breweries like Shipyard up in Maine sell 400,000 cases of their pumpkin beer every fall — far outstripping all their other beer sales, including their year-round line.

That trend holds true to various degrees across the nation. And yet for some reason, pumpkin anything gets a bad wrap in this country. Sure, it can be overly sweet — especially if we’re talking about the latte variety from Starbucks, where literally everything is too sweet — but your anger is with sugar in these cases, not pumpkin.

For the most part, pumpkin beers are brewed with the flesh of the squash. Later, more pumpkin fruit and various spices are added to amp up the brew as it settles into a nice, drinkable beer. This process is no different than, say, Belgian lambics settling with pounds of fresh berry fruit or Berliner Weisse fermenting with pounds of citrus out there. We like fruit in our beer so it tracks that we’d love using pumpkin (a fruit) in our beers too.

With all of that in mind, we thought we’d throw down a list of the best pumpkin beers out there right now. These beers offer a wide spectrum of styles from imperial stouts to Scottish ales to simple ales. It’s really a beer wonderland of seasonal and local ingredients filtered through the lens of, perhaps, the first real American beer. Let’s dive in a get a little tipsy.

THE GREAT PUMPKIN — ELYSIAN BREWING

Elysian’s The Great Pumpkin is the perfect example of how good this style is. The beer is brewed with roasted pumpkin seeds in the mash and then pumpkin fruit is added to the fermenter to really amp up the earthy pumpkin flavor.

Finally, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg are added to round out the flavor profile and add a nice depth to the beer. You’ll get a blast of spice on this one that’s followed by a mellow fruitiness that leans more towards a mossy fall morning when the mist is still close to the ground.

PUNKIN ALE — DOGFISH HEAD CRAFT BREWERY

Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale is a wonderful drink. The ale aims to hit the very middle of the road. It’s not too sweet, not too boozy, and not too spicy. It’s just nice, balanced, and very quaffable.

You get a real sense of a pumpkin pie that’s been loaded with smooth brown sugar and plenty of fresh pumpkin fruit. There’s a nice hint of cinnamon and allspice that falls off as the bready malts take over. This is a very easy beer to fall in love with.

PUMPKIN ALE — SAMUEL ADAMS

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Samuel Adam’s Pumpkin Ale is probably the easiest beer to find and give a shot on this list. You can get this stuff in pretty much every beer shop across the land.

The beer leans mildly sweet with an almost treacle feel. The pumpkin fruit is a little sweeter here, with the spices coming in late as a nice accent that never overpowers. The ale feels almost warming — which is kind of the point of a spicy pie. Overall, this is an easy beer to drink and probably the most affordable on this list.

PUMPKIN ALE — UPSLOPE BREWING COMPANY

Upslope’s Pumpkin Ale is a great place to start your pumpkin beer journey. This beer just straight rocks.

The roasted pumpkin shines through the hops and malts giving this one an earthen farmhouse feel on a cold autumn morning. The spice blend adds to that earthiness with a nice sense of heat and depth. The fruitiness of the pumpkin leans only mildly sweet and more, almost, velvety. It’s a fascinating example of the style that will have you hooked after one sip.

GOOD GOURD — CIGAR CITY BREWING

Down Florida way, Cigar City nailed pumpkin pie in a can with their Good Gourd. We’re not joking. This one’s a dessert beer that’s goddamn delicious.

The blend of fruity and sweet pumpkin with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla works wonders in the bottle. This one is probably a little more divisive since it leans more fruity sweet than fruity earthy. Either way, it’s still a little bit of fall magic in a glass.

POST ROAD PUMPKIN ALE — BROOKLYN BREWERY

Brooklyn Brewery has a penchant for making fine beers with aplomb. Their lager is an undeniable classic. We’d argue that their Post Road Pumpkin Ale is a classic too.

The beer has a clear and concise pumpkin essence that hits that sweet spot of being mildly sweet and boldly earthy. There’s a nice hit of nutmeg here that leans into the biscuity malt. This one is complex and a real winner if you’re looking to convince someone that pumpkin beers are, indeed, great.

VOODOO RANGER ATOMIC PUMPKIN — NEW BELGIUM

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New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin is all about hitting you with big ideas and flavors right up front. This beer hits the pumpkin strong and leaves wondering how the hell they pulled such hardcore flavors off.

The big ripple here isn’t the pumpkin, it’s the chilis. The pumpkin provides a subtle base that hints at sweetness. From there, the habanero, aji, and arbol peppers spiral upwards into a piquant Saigon cinnamon. It’s amazingly fresh tasting, with a keen depth of spiciness that’s the perfect accent for the almost scone-like malts. This one’s bold and we love it for that.

IMPERIAL PUMPKIN — HARPOON

We’re going a little deeper here. Harpoon’s Imperial Pumpkin is half imperial stout and half pumpkin ale. It’s a crazy mix that gives a wholly unique flavor profile to the styles.

The beer starts off like a creamy and chocolatey stout with a dried fruit edge. That gives way to a mildly sweet pumpkin feel with very earthy and mild spices popping up in the background. Nothing overpowers anything here and it all manages to make sense when you actually drink it. It’s kind of like chocolate covered spicy pumpkin cookies in a bottle with a deep coffee stout edge. It’s madness and delicious.

PUMPKIN ALE — ALEWERKS BREWING COMPANY

Alewerks knows how to make a great beer. Their Pumpkin Ale is a shining example of their expert craftsmanship translated into beer form.

This beer has a deep-roasted pumpkin fruit and toasted spices taste. It’s full of brown sugar which gives it a distinct pumpkin pie feel. However, it’s also more of an artisanal pumpkin pie that you’d get out of an earthen over behind a farmhouse than, say, at a Costco. There’s nothing artificial here and you feel that in every delicious sip.

NIGHT OWL — ELYSIAN BREWING

Elysian’s “original” pumpkin beer is the perfect place to find a little catharsis. We know, we already put Elysian up top but Night Owl is essential and worthy of every mention it gets.

The beer is made with both raw and roasted pumpkin seeds in the mash and then pumpkin juice and fruit is added to the fermenter along with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. The end result is a beer that hits you with a full-on pumpkin taste that’s backed up with pie spices and a maltiness that feels like a buttery crust. This is pumpkin pie in a bottle that doesn’t lean too sweet and instead shines as a delicious fruit and spice forward beer.

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