Pumpkin beer is now like Black Friday or those reindeer lawn ornaments that line the aisles of Costco; they arrive earlier every year. Offerings from Weyerbacher, Shipyard, and New Belgium hit shelves in July, which provoked some serious industry backlash and concerns about ensuing pumpkin fatigue. Firestone Walker Brewing employee John Bryan made waves last week when he tweeted, “Pumpkin beer is the modern day equivalent of the mullet. Everybody that brewed one will be ashamed of it in a decade.’’
It’s easy to see both sides of the sensitive great pumpkin debate as purists reject the goofy novelty of it and the often garish, over-the-top quality of the final product. But it seems a tad hypocritical since American craft brewers are often guilty of pushing the boundaries of accepted levels of alcohol, hops, and artisanal adjuncts. No, you would never see this trend is countries with more pervasive beer cultures, such as Germany, the UK, or even candy-crazy Belgium.
But I embrace this celebration of sugar and excess in the same spirit as candy corn and horror movies. It’s a fun, short-lived reprieve from the norm and certainly one that’s more exciting than blah summer seasonals that too often taste like Snapple lemonade dilluted by a tray of melted ice cubes.
I recently joined Globe beer writer Gary Dzen, his wife, Melissa, and our beer-crazy friend Meaghan Gardner to blind sample 16 pumpkin beers. There’s a reason why sommeliers and cicerones adhere to the practice: It challenges every one of your senses and forces you to abandon your biases at the door. The following results are the average of our respective lists. When the brown paper bags were shucked, some of the results were stunning. Brewers and labels that we all admire were fully thrown under the metaphorical bus, while plenty of quiet underdogs rose to the top of this year’s vintage.
15. Cambridge Brewing
The Great Pumpkin Ale
Probably the biggest surprise was the beer that comfortably settled into last place. Will Meyers and his talented team at Cambridge Brewing are some of New England’s finest craftsmen, but the term “Bud Light,’’ “flabby,’’ and “watery’’ were thrown around a lot with regards to their Great Pumpkin Ale. Brewed with local, organic barley and sugar pumpkins harvested from The Farm School in Athol and Wilson Farms in Lexington, this was a beer that failed to live up to its lofty expectations.
Notable tasting note: “It has a watered-down quality reminiscent of Bud Light. This could be a new addition to their Bud Lime line.’’ -Meaghan Gardner
14. Shipyard Brewing
As Gary noted in his “99 Bottles’’ column, Shipyard Brewing has now climbed to No. 15 among craft breweries in terms of volume sales, mostly because of this insanely popular wheat ale brewed with cinnamon and nutmeg. But this tongue-drying quaffer had a noxious mulling spice overload that contrasted with the nonexistent finish. Back in the ’90s, sorority girls used to melt cinnamon Jolly Ranchers in Zima for an adventurous change-of-pace. I imagine that rosy elixir tasted very similiar to Shipyard Pumpkinhead.
Notable tasting note: “This brings me right back to my childhood, but in the worst possible way. Something about it reminds me of children’s cough syrup.’’ -Christopher Hughes
Blue Point is another great brewery that fell way short of our expectations. These seasoned Long Island brewers have a well-rounded portfolio that spans everything from excellent oatmeal stouts to ESBs that will have you rethinking that ancient, underperforming style. This was the second beer we sampled and it adopted a sobriquet for the remainder of the evening: “cinnamon water.’’ There was simply no depth to this thin, flavorless ale that lacked anything other than cinnamon and off-flavors of iron, as if a rusty penny were disintegrating at the bottom of the bottle.’’
Notable tasting note: “Cinnamon water.’’ -Gary Dzen
12. The Traveler Beer Co.
Lately, it seems that you can’t turn around without the handlebar mustache of this shandy offshoot of the Boston Beer Co. peering back at you from local tap handles and the windows of retail shops. The tradition of the European shandy typically mixes ale with lemon-lime soda, but in their Jack-O Traveler, this citrus injection is mercifully subdued. The overall impression is like an off-balanced brown ale with notes of must, maple syrup, and gobs of cinnamon.
Notable tasting note: “This is like a sad bourbon-soaked maraschino cherry at the bottom of a Manhattan glass.’’ -Christopher Hughes
Harpoon is up to so many new and exciting things with their small-batch 100 Barrel series and a creative Pilot series exclusive to their expanded tap room, but this newly canned addition to the UFO line was remarkably bland. The pumpkin pie aromas touted on their website barely register in this flat, artificial tasting effort. Most of us detected strange bubble gum aromas and I caught an initial saline blast of orange Gatorade.
Notable tasting note: “Bubble Yum Original bubble gum. That’s all I’m getting.’’ -Meaghan Gardner
10. Southern Tier
New York’s Southern Tier doesn’t shy away from gluttony in their high-octane imperial series, which is why Pumpking is always a polarizing autumn seasonal. Subtlety is certainly not the intention here as a rush of vanilla extract, gingerbread, and nutmeg overpowers your senses. Perhaps it was Pumpking’s placement among less pungent examples, but the 8.6 percent alcohol by volume and overzealous vanilla contributed to a sugary-sweet nose that reminded me of Malibu coconut rum.
Notable tasting note: “It’s like a sliver of pumpkin pie drowning in Cool Whip.’’ -Christopher Hughes
9. Shipyard Brewing
Portland’s Shipyard Brewing added this hefty big brother of Pumpkinhead in 2009, and it proved much more crowd-pleasing than its sibling during our blind tasting. Most of us agreed that given the right context — a cold evening and a warm fire — this would be eminently enjoyable. The boozy esthers, toffee flavor, and viscous texture all contributed to a ruby port-effect.
Notable tasting note: “Smells exactly like the almond extract found in anise cookies.’’ -Meaghan Gardner
8. Hoppin’ Frog
Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale
Wild food associations like “green apple,’’ “sour tangerine,’’ and “toasted marshmallow’’ were bandied about on first sniff, but the prominent woodsy vanilla of new oak gave away the identity on this barrel-aged offering from Hoppin’ Frog out of Akron, Ohio. The rich, milk chocolate aromas were nicely balanced by citrusy acid and plenty of earthy toast, but my Globe counterpart was left wondering, “Is there too much going on?’’
Notable tasting note: “With the toasted marshmallow and chocolate it’s like smores. But there’s also this caramel apple thing going on. It’s the ultimate carney food.’’ -Christopher Hughes
Imperial Pumpkin Ale
It’s easy to see why beers enthusiasts typically fawn over this regal addition to the debaucherous pumpkin beer category. The pumpkin, clove, and cardamom weren’t as obnoxious as they were in other examples we encountered. In fact, this had more in common with a Marzen, with its copper color and malty mid-palate. Dan and Sue Weirback of Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher should be extremely proud of this outstanding pumpkin beer.
Notable tasting note: “Nutty and malty. This is like an Imperial Octoberfest.’’ -Gary Dzen
7.(Tied) Samuel Adams
Harvest Pumpkin Ale
Jim Koch had a strong showing in our massive pumpkin tasting. The molasses, caramel, and cocoa nib notes had a warming effect that deceived us into thinking it was one of the boozier offerings. Each batch of Samuel Adams’ Harvest Pumpkin Ale is brewed with 17 pounds of pumpkins and a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. I was reminded of cold weather strong ales like Avery’s Jubilation, but at a slight 5.7 percent ABV, you can imbibe far more without the crippling consequences.
Notable tasting note: “I don’t get a ton of the pumpkin. The caveat of using smoked malt is that smoke is the predominant flavor. I also detect a blue cheese quality.’’ -Gary Dzen
6. Ithaca Beer Co.
The pride of the Finger Lakes easily provided the most refreshing, thirst-quenching example of the evening. The brewers at Ithaca Beer are distinguished hop-mongers with their pungent red IPA, Cascazilla, and one of my favorite go-to IPAs, Flower Power, but their Country Pumpkin was downright delicate, with notes of lemongrass and orange peel. The subtle Honey Malt gives it the mouthfeel of a Belgian wit with just a dash of pumpkin pie spice.
Notable tasting note: “It has more lemon than pumpkin. It doesn’t wow you, but it’s really drinkable.’’ -Gary Dzen
5. Cape Ann Fisherman’s
The dead giveaway of the evening was Cape Ann’s inky imperial stout, which is a brilliant riff on the pumpkin genre. After indulging in the rich notes of chocolate, citrus fruits, and vanilla, it had me wondering why most breweries aren’t leaning in this direction instead. In an extensive lineup, this was the beer we were all scrambling for at the end of the night.
Notable tasting note: “It’s like Cocoa Pebbles sprinkled on pumpkin pie.’’ -Christopher Hughes
Smuttynose isn’t mentioned nearly as often as Samuel Adams and Allagash when it comes to the best breweries in New England, but I think Greg Blanchard and his staff deserve to be recognized in that conversation. Their dazzling lineup rarely disappoints and their Pumpkin Ale was certainly no different. Everyone swooned at the comingling of Cascade hops, clove, and pumpkin puree. The understated cinnamon and nutmeg, along with a bone-dry finish, make this attractive in any season.
Notable tasting note: “The spicy bitterness, along with the lack of sweetness, is identical to attributes in Belgian farmhouse ales.’’ -Gary Dzen
3. Cisco Brewers
Cisco’s Pumple Drumkin started the evening off with a bang. The grapefruit hoppiness and the almost blasé approach to the pumpkin addition had Gary and I guessing it was from Ithaca or Smuttynose. This style of beer is more subjective than most and Pumple Drumkin was the perfect example of this. Hop-heads will rejoice, but fans of in-your-face nutmeg and cinnamon-rimmed pint glasses will be doing an indignant spit-take.
Notable tasting note: “Not very pumpkin-y’’ -Meaghan Gardner
2. Wolaver’s Organic Brewing
This was the second biggest surprise of the evening. It’s not that the Otter Creek team doesn’t make enjoyable beer, but they’re always very understated, right down to their simple labels tinged in neutral tones. But as other breweries angle for bolder additions of baking spices and escalating levels of alcohol, Wolaver’s was obviously content to focus on better ingredients. Brewed with organic Vermont pumpkins, Wolaver’s drank like a balanced pale ale with a comforting nose of baked pumpkin.
Notable tasting note: “You know it’s a pumpkin beer, but it’s not in your face.’’ -Gary Dzen
1. Dogfish Head
Dogfish Head cleaned up. Everyone but Gary had this ranked as the best beer, and this was head-and-shoulders above the others in my top 5. Dogfish owner Sam Calagione is recognized as the great experimenter, but he’s always building off his biggest successes. Even when he’s throwing in black garlic or syrah grapes, he’s using measured amounts in his base beers like 60 Minute IPA and Raison D’Etre. Lurking somewhere in the back of his Punkin Ale I detected Dogfish’s Indian Brown Ale, with it’s hoppy backbone and sinewy malt foundation. When I say I enjoy pumpkin beers, this is what I mean!
Notable tasting note: “This is the perfect combination of hops, malt, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pumpkin. What a great beer!’’ -Melissa Dzen