After the summer ales have been finished off and the Oktoberfest beers disappear, another beer rules the shelves: pumpkin ale. In recent years, pumpkin ale has become a treat as loved as the season’s other favorite pumpkin staple, pumpkin pie.
While the discovery of pumpkin ales may seem like a newer trend, pumpkin ales have a deep-rooted history in America’s breweries. Back during Colonial times, pumpkin brews had a different purpose than just tasting delicious and giving drinkers a slight buzz: they were used more as a health tonic. In fact, pumpkin was actually substituted for malt when brewing, because it was it available on the ready and it was an easy sugar to ferment. The earliest recipe for a pumpkin brew appeared in a 1771 text by the American Philosophical Society (because it’s totally understandable for philosophers to be brewing). The recipe:
"Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer."
But soon, the traditional beer ingredients you’d find today began to wipe out the need for pumpkin in brewing. Pumpkins made a brief comeback in the 1840s, but were used more for flavoring than for brewing. But then, the pumpkin beer made its full return in the 1980s. Serious Drinks credits Buffalo Bill's Brewery for using a George Washington recipe for America’s Original Pumpkin Beer; now, a traditional pumpkin ale includes what are known as pumpkin pie spices — cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Of course, brewing a pumpkin ale comes with a range of problems. If a pumpkin beer is out on shelves too early — say, August or September — it might be made with an older batch of pumpkins. Our friends at The Drink Nation pointed out a tweet earlier this fall from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Any pumpkin beer on shelves now is clearly not made with this year's pumpkin. Pumpkins are not harvested until October or November." In fact, most breweries aren’t using this year’s crop for the freshest batch of pumpkin ales, as most breweries brew it the summer before. Plus, there’s a whole to-do list to ready the pumpkin for brewing — harvesting, packaging, shipping, ordering, delivering — to add onto the two- to three-month brewing process. If breweries used this year’s harvest, the beloved pumpkin ale wouldn’t hit shelves until December. But not all hope is lost, as many breweries use canned pumpkin instead. For example, Dogfish Head uses canned and cooked pumpkin rather than fresh pumpkin for its Punkin brew.
So we grabbed a few six-packs and decided to try them ourselves — after all, it’s really difficult to convince coworkers to start drinking a pumpkin ale on a chilly Friday afternoon. We scored them from 60 percent to 100 percent, much like a school grading system. However, we found that some of the pumpkin ales didn’t taste very pumpkin-y at all. And the office was very divided on the ales with pumpkin spice: some loved the sweet, pumpkin pie flavor, and others said it was too much for a brew. Still, it doesn’t mean we won’t be kicking back a few more pumpkin ales ourselves.
The Daily Meal's Pumpkin Ale Taste Test
KBC Pumpkin Ale 80.2%
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale 78.1%
Southern Tier Pumking 77.2%
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale 74.01%
Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale 71.6%
Post Road Pumpkin Ale 68.5%
Blue Point Pumpkin Ale 68.2%
KBC Pumpkin Ale
From the Kennebunkport Brewing Company, this pumpkin ale was deemed for pie lovers only, thanks to the abundance of cinnamon and nutmeg. "There’s so much spice I’m confused," said one editor. But it’s the one beer that was granted seasonal status by our editors. "It’s Thanksgiving in a glass," said another. We’ll keep this one on the shelves until then.
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
The Smuttynose ale is made with "natural" pumpkin purée, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — but what stands out about this ale is the hops. Made with cascade and liberty hops, it has a much more bitter taste than the other ales — splitting the office’s votes. Those who love hoppy brews quickly found a favorite in this brew, while those expecting a sweeter taste were disappointed. As one editor noted, "It’s the beer drinker’s choice."
Southern Tier Pumking
Another ale with pumpkin pie notes, rather than just plain pumpkin, but it was quick favorite for those who love sweet beers. The scents of caramel and the sweet, creamy taste quickly won over our editors; Southern Tier also notes hints of malts, vanilla, and pie crust. Still, its hoppy finish kept beer lovers happy. "At least this one tries to taste like pumpkin," said one editor. Others disagreed, saying the overpowering caramel and vanilla notes overrode the pumpkin — and that there was little to no pumpkin taste at all. "At least it’s a conversation piece," noted another editor. And this offering, in 22-ounce bottles, rather than the traditional six-pack, could be enough for dessert for two.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Fun fact: The Punkin Ale is named after a Delaware tradition: the Punkin Chunkin, a pumpkin-throwing contest. Because why not? Fun aside, the Punkin Ale tasted fairly sweet to our editors (Dogfish Head notes the brown sugar, malt, and caramel flavor notes.) Some of our editors picked up on the hints of coffee, cocoa, and other spices. But several noted a syrupy, artificial taste to the brew as well. The Punkin Ale is brewed with pumpkin meat, organic brown sugar, and other spices, which may have accounted for our editors' notes.
Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale
Said Captain Lawrence’s owner Scott Vaccaro in a release unveiling the new crop of pumpkin ales, the Captain Lawrence Pumpkin Ale is made from 4,000 pounds of pumpkin purée from All Puree in Newburgh, N.Y. But that doesn’t mean it showed up on our editors' taste buds. Despite the lack of pumpkin flavors, our tasters seemed to like the not-too-sweet flavor and its "sessionability" (at 5.5 percent ABV). "It has a 'light beer' sort of feel," noted one editor. Although Captain Lawrence says the notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice come through in the flavor profile, our editors noted that those spices were seemed to be what was missing from the brew.
Post Road Pumpkin Ale
Brooklyn Brewery described the beer as having an orange amber color, pumpkin aroma, and a crisp finish, but our editors weren’t having any of that. One called it "the Bud Light pumpkin beer," and most editors noticed a lack of bouquet and a watery taste. But it did have a harvest, autumnal taste, noted tasters.
Blue Point Pumpkin Ale
There were a few elements that killed the Blue Point for our tasters: the aroma (what one editor called "an offensive scent"), and the pumpkin taste felt skimped over. "Just because it’s a pumpkin beer doesn’t meant the base beer should be boring, but it is," said one editor. Still, another editor said it was a balanced beer despite its "middle of the road" status.