There’s a time in every mild-mannered columnist’s life when the rage must bubble out.
I’m talking about frustration with something insidious, repellant and soul cracking. I’m talking about pumpkin beer.
Why pick on pumpkin beer? It’s the playful symbol of autumnal splendor! The nectar that introduces the casual beer drinker to exotic flavors! People are passionate about their pumpkin beers. They routinely stock up on Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Pumking, a high-alcohol, rich and mildly spicy ale made with pureed pumpkin. Others celebrate Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead Ale and Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale.
I posit only this: we should stop buying so much pumpkin beer and encourage brewers to make better seasonal beers instead. I would rather drink a finely crafted porter that incorporates the spices we associate with pumpkin beer than the unappealing messes that most of these vegetable beers have become.
Reason 1: They either taste like a spice cabinet or not much of anything. Pumpkin meat, the gooey orange glop also known as Jack-o-Lantern brains, doesn’t really taste like anything. What we associate with pumpkin flavor is really pumpkin pie, which comes from spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. So when brewers try to translate this into beer, they use some form of pumpkin (sometimes roasted to bring out a little natural flavor) but a bunch of spices to complement the malt and hops. The result is either overly spiced or bland.
Reason 2: We’re missing out on the flavors of fall. There are better autumn tastes that we can experience in beer. Give me a saison made with yeast and hops that bring out a spiciness that isn’t so forced and sweet. Give me a chocolate stout that makes me think of Halloween. How about a clean, crisp lager with hints of over-ripe apples?
Reason 3: Pumpkin beers rush us into the season. With competition for shelf space being always on the rise, breweries are shipping their pumpkin beers onto the shelves earlier and earlier. Who wants to be reminded of Halloween in August? The same “season creep” is evident in the early release of Oktoberfest beers, some being touted by late July. By turning our backs on pumpkin beers, perhaps breweries will expand their summer line-ups, delivering creative twists on the hefeweizen or Kolsch.
Pumpkin fan weighs in
I realize there are other views on the topic, so I turned to pumpkin beer fanatic Tony Leone, who writes the “Beer 411” blog. He defended pumpkin beers in an email, opining that they are not at all over-rated, as I suggest. The explosion of diversity in the pumpkin ale market is good for drinkers, because they can now reach all kinds of palates. “If you prefer a boozier finish at 8 or 9 percent [alcohol by volume], then you should gravitate more towards bourbon or rum barrel aged (i.e. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin Ale). Looking for something more sessionable or drinkable? Then, grab something with an ABV around 5 percent like Shipyard Pumpkinhead or Post Road Pumpkin Ale… Don’t simply write off pumpkin beers in general in case you tried one you didn’t like.”
While Leone did concede that pumpkins might be over-exposed and out too early, he celebrates the style with a semi-annual pumpkin beer tasting with friends, in which they judge beers blind and rate them bracket-style. He also recommends finding new ways to bring life to this kind of beer: cocktails.
“At the risk of losing a bit of street cred with my fellow craft beer drinkers, I’ve been known to add a shot of Fireball, vanilla vodka or Southern Comfort to my pumpkin ales,” he admitted. “If those are too heavy for you, then rim you glass in caramel sauce, then a cinnamon and sugar mix (you can thank me later).”
The pros weigh in
I also put the question of pumpkin beer validity to some professional Connecticut brewers, some of whom were not at all shy to cast aspersions on the dreaded drink.
Rob Leonard, owner of New England Brewing, put it succinctly: “There will never be a pumpkin beer from NEB,” he wrote. “If pumpkins could make a sound, they would offend all five of my senses.”
Back East Brewing’s Mike Smith said he did not think he’d make one either, but noted that there’s a reason they’re so popular: they sell. “Customers, many of whom are ‘not beer drinkers,’ really look forward to pumpkin season,” he wrote. “Not to my liking, but hey, if it’s a way to reach a customer that you can’t normally reach I can’t see anything horribly wrong with it.”
This kind of popularity was evident last year when Relic Brewing’s Mark Sigman put out an ale that incorporated local roasted pumpkin and sold out in a day. But even he is not enthused about making another one; he’d rather experiment with apples, he wrote.
What’s wrong with pumpkin beers is that they’re a “marketing gimmick,” wrote Christian Amport of Overshores Brewing. “The reality is that early release pumpkin beers have no season because they’re not made from this year’s local crop,” he said. “And when pumpkin beers come out earlier and earlier, it robs us of enjoying the culture of the last days of summer in that we’re having the next season shoved in our faces with products made from crops that were harvested either last year or in a different part of the country or a different part of the world.”
In conclusion, I submit to you to turn your nose up at the overexposed and under-tasty offerings of pumpkin beers. Breweries should get the message that it’s time to diversify their fall crop and maybe stick to the seasons the way nature intended.
This column was originally published in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American on Aug. 31, 2014.