A few weeks before Halloween, I start preparing for the holiday (and the candy-induced coma that invariably follows) by repeatedly watching my favorite beer-themed cartoon special, It’s the Great Pumpkin Beer, Charlie Brown Ale! It’s important to note that all of this year’s viewings will be in the intimate company of “pumpkin beer,” the craft-beer market’s most ubiquitous—and most polarizing—style.
The pumpkin- and pumpkin-spice-flavor craze has become an unparalleled (and somewhat startling) cultural phenomenon in recent years. And pumpkin beer has been a central force in the highly commercialized advance. There are more pumpkin beers than ever and it’s not uncommon to find some labels available in the middle of summer—to both the delight and disdain of drinkers.
Whatever your stance on the divisive seasonal’s popularity, the use of pumpkin to make beer is actually a centuries-old tradition: colonial-era brewers adopted pumpkin as an ingredient in their beer-making process simply due to its abundance over others. Cindy Ott, the author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, wrote: “When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin.”
It’s also interesting to note that not every modern-day pumpkin beer is made with real pumpkin. Some are flavored with purée while others feature none of the gourd. They instead employ spices or adjuncts evocative of pumpkin pie. Regardless of ingredient specifics, one thing is nevertheless indisputable: the pumpkin-beer category continues to expand and evolve.
Zach Mack, owner of ABC Beer Co. in Manhattan’s East Village, agreed. “I think it’s becoming increasingly hard for people to narrow down what’s a trick and what’s a treat,” he mused. “There are a ton of choices and brewers aren’t just making traditional pumpkin ale with a few spices anymore. You’re just as likely to find a pumpkin imperial stout or a pumpkin sour, and a lot are excellently made. There’s something for everyone now—even the most seasoned beer drinker who might’ve avoided anything pumpkin beer a few years back.”
ABC is a cozy bar and gourmet shop pouring some of the best locally-made beers (ex: Other Half Brewing’s Debbie Downer, a vivaciously juicy IPA made with mango and white chocolate) alongside international obscurities (Hitachino’s Nest Anbai Ale, a Japanese-inspired gose brewed with native sour plums and sea salt). In addition to its 12 rotating drafts, all of which are available to-go via growler, there are more than 450 varieties in bottles and cans and a small selection of meats, cheeses and breads. Mack, a certified cicerone (the highest professional distinction of beer connoisseur), said he personally tastes every beer he can in curating his stock for the shop. He noted these as his favorite pumpkin beers:
Almanac Beer Co., Dark Pumpkin Sour ABV: 7%
This offering from the sour-beer specialist in San Francisco might seem like a messy mix of several craft-beer trends at first glance; but somehow, a sour beer brewed with organic heirloom pumpkins and spices and aged for a year in red-wine barrels is a balanced creation that tastes far from a gimmick! Taking the lead in this rich, roasty and vinous beauty are delicate notes of tart cranberries and dark cherries, with pumpkin appearing only as a subtle earthy element that weaves in and out. Dark Pumpkin Sour is perfect for anyone out there who isn’t looking for an everyday, run-of-the-mill pumpkin beer. It’s also complex enough to pair with a rich holiday meal.
SCHLAFLY BEER CO., PUMPKIN ALE ABV: 8%
If you want a “normal” pumpkin beer that tastes like a sweet slice of pumpkin pie, your best bet is Schlafly’s. It has the malty foundation and the classic cinnamon, clove and nutmeg harvest spices rounded out with a creamy mouthfeel. Mack has found this one is a pleaser for all levels of beer drinker—even for the incredibly divisive style.
CENTRAL WATERS BREWING CO., HEADLESS HERON BARREL AGED PUMPKIN SPICE ALE ABV: 8.5%
Aging a pumpkin spice ale in bourbon barrels is a match made in heaven. And both sides shine through in harmony to create a decadent flavor profile that’s like a pumpkin-gingersnap cookie lightly dipped into a snifter of smooth bourbon. Forget those over-the-top fall beers that taste like a Yankee Candle—this one’s for slow-sipping.