Monday, November 1, 2010

Hallowe'en Drink'n: A Scarrrry Roundup of Pumpkin Brews!

Well, Hallowe'en is over, and the dreary month of November is upon us.  Unless you're one of those guys who sees November as a month to channel his inner Tom Selleck, or if you happen to live across the border and choose to celebrate Thanksgiving six weeks too late, for the rest of us November is a pretty lame month.  It's cold; it's dark; the leaves have long gone; it's fucking cold; retailers are busy convincing the lot of us that Christmas season began four weeks ago and that we're all chronically late on our shopping duties, (and as a subset, the odd Christmas carol will sneak in to a mall playlist, driving up the rate of brain aneurysms.) 

"Walking in a winter wonderland..."

But fear not!  As with most of my calendar-related tips, hope in the face of the 'November blahs' can be found in beer!   For another month and a half, it's still technically fall, and there's still time to enjoy the last of the fall seasonals before they start putting out the holiday gift packs at the LCBO (which they already did...)   If you happen to live in a neighborhood of some kind, you've probably noticed the mouldy, crusty, morbid remains of many a smashed pumpkin.  Such carnage on a global scale reminds us that pumpkins have, for many years, been a common ingredient in fall brewing.  Many a North American brewmaster has taken the normally useless innards of a pumpkin for more noble pursuits: pumpkin pie + beer = beer that tastes like pumpkin pie!  If done well, pumpkin beer can be a wonderful fall treat, a delicious way to combine one's love of autumn with love of drinking  (that, and Candy Corn Schnapps).  Done badly, and...we'll get to that in a moment.   Let us begin our roundup of pumpkin ales!


Beer: Grand River Highballer Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Grand River Brewing (Cambridge, ON)
ABV: 5.2%

For those who have been with the blog for a while, you may remember that I've already reviewed this before.  And you would be correct.  I'm including this brew in my roundup for two reasons.  First, small breweries (Grand River being a textbook example of this) are always growing and learning their craft, and over the course of a few years, greater experience and greater revenue can allow them to try different methods of producing the same beer.  Unlike the large brewers whose recipes are written on stone tables, craft brewers can see subtle differences in their brews from year to year, intentional or not.   Some years everything works together perfectly, other years not so much.   It can be remarkably touch-and-go, so I like to try to revisit batches, especially of holiday or one-off brews, to see if there has been a yearly change.   My other reason is because the Grad House put Highballer on tap, which gives me a much better approximation of what the brewer (Rob Creighton) was intending. 

Poured into a Grand River ale glass.  As can be seen in the pic, the brew is amber-copper, with about a 1/2 inch head, terrific retention right to the bitter end. Every sip yielded sheets of lacing, with patches scattered here and there. Looks terrific.

Nose is primarily that of spicy pumpkin pie, with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and molasses asserting themselves, and with pumpkin and malty sweetness providing the backing.

The taste is quite good for a pumpkin ale - really hit the spot on a cold, rainy October day. Pumpkin flavor was rich and hearty, a touch of molasses and piecrust, with nutmeg and cinnamon providing a sharp spicy tang. Finishes clean with a slight hop bitterness. Keeping the whole thing in check was a lovely red ale base, malty and crisp. Quite enjoyable, and not an artificial-tasting flavor in the lot.

Mouthfeel is creamy, with an assertive carbonation that peppers the tongue with spicy goodness.

I've had this ale three different years now, and I've got to say that Rob and Bob have nailed it with this year's edition, at least on tap anyhow. Rich, satisfying, but drinkable (as far as a pumpkin beer goes). All the great flavors of pumpkin pie, but with enough of a pale ale base to make it easier to down a pint or two in an evening.  A fine effort!  (Grade: B+)

Beer: Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale
Brewery: Great Lakes Brewing (Toronto)
ABV: 5.5%

I picked up this brew with a remarkable feeling of apprehension, because I can't really say I'm a fan of most things Great Lakes has released.   For a brewer of some fairly outside-the-pale lagers and ales, some of their brews can be very one-dimensional and...well...strange.  Great Lakes are the guys who produce almost everything in tall bottles featuring seemingly bizarre ingredients.   You may have come across Orange Peel Ale,  Canuck Pale Ale, or last year, their Green Tea Ale in your travels.  Great Lakes for me is exactly hit-or-miss, I've yet to have a beer by them that I didn't either really like or detest.   In the case of the latter, like with their Green Tea Ale, I found that the beer tasted exactly like you'd expect a beer with Green Tea to taste like: pale ale + green tea.   Nothing special, but neither is it anything to be proud of.  By this logic I'm sure I could make a French Toast Lager that tastes somewhat like beer with French toast in it, to the detriment of both.  By contrast, I've found myself really enjoying their Devils Pale Ale #666, and last years' Winter Ale was on par with many other winter warmers I sampled last Christmas.   Some of their lesser known brews (i.e., the one's they choose not to release, save for events only the most dedicated beer-geeks can attend), have received some pretty fine accolades, many of which have some pretty awesome names.  Examples include: My Bitter Wife IPA, Miami Weisse, Neutron Bomb Double IPA, and my personal favorite, My Wife Went To the West Coast and All I Got Was This Lousy Pale Ale.  

Great Lakes is like a delinquent child who every once in a while does something charitable; although I can't completely write them off because they can brew, they frustrate me because they just choose to put out only their most boring, one-dimensional novelty fare in the LCBO, with only a couple exceptions.  Hopefully I can manage to sample some of their better stuff in the future, and can in some small way encourage its greater distribution.   So, with this in mind, here we go:

Light copper-golden, a thin, foamy head that recedes after a few moments. Some visible carbonation.

Nose is pretty dull - pale malts, light hops, only a faint nutmeg, pumpkin scent that I could barely detect - others with me could not.  Michelle claimed that she could only smell Coors Light.  Things not looking good.

The taste is a big let-down.  For a beer that markets itself as a pumpkin ale, where the fuck is the pumpkin???  Unlike the noble jack o lantern, which features prominently on your front step or in your window for all to see, the pumpkin here chooses instead to hide in the back, only making rare visits as the beer warms up. The spicy flavor is not all that enjoyable either - more tinny and artificial. If this were a well made pale ale with subtle pumpkin notes, this would be excusable; sadly, it is not. Truth be told, I had trouble finishing it.

Mouthfeel is thin, carbonation provides a light sting.

I had been warned about this brew by friends and family, but I just couldn't not try it.  Turns out I shouldn't have.  Comparing this brew to others of the style, and it's not even close.   A big pass on this one.  (Grade: C-)

Beer: Southern Tier Imperial Pumking
Brewery: Southern Tier (Lakewood, NY)
ABV: approx. 8%

I won't go too far into this brew, as my thoughts on Southern Tier have been made pretty clear so far: if they want to brew something that tastes exactly like something they can do it, for good or for ill.   I will say, however, that Pumking is one of the biggest American pumpkin ales in terms of hype and accolades; if your average beer geek were to rattle off the best pumpkin ales in the country, this number would definitely
feature on most lists.  Let's have at it.

Poured into a nonic. Light copper, leaves a foamy head that settles after a few minutes. Left some flakes of lacing that survive to the finish.

The nose is pure pumpkin pie goodness - smells like the crust of my Thanksgiving dessert treat.  Nutmeg, cinnamon, molasses and crackers as well.  Oh, and of course loads of fresh pumpkin.

The taste is also unmistakably that of pumpkin pie, an effect that caused many a quizzical look between Michelle and I as we wondered whether our leftover frozen pies from Thanksgiving hadn't thawed, liquified, spontaneously fermented and then poured themselves into our glasses of their own free will to the tune of Fantasia's "Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Nah, couldn't be... (*double-checks freezer to be absolutely sure*)  

Flavor notes are: pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon, crackers, crust, and to keep things from getting out of hand, a slightly hoppy finish to cleanse the palate. What really shocks me is how little of the alcohol I can detect - hard to believe there's 8 percents-worth lurking in here...

A touch watery, but with a reasonable carbonation to help work through what is turning out to be one heavy dose of overwhelming pumpkin flavour.

Sharing was a smart idea. The flavor is so potent, so hearty, that more than a pint or two a season would be simply too much. Southern Tier need not worry about this - pumpkin ales are a seasonal treat that many of us look forward to but only so few can drink in vast quantities; fortunately their Pumking can rightfully claim to be among the best of the patch, so when I want my pumpkin ale fix, theirs will be almost certainly be the one I call upon.  About the only thing working against Pumking, at least in Ontario, is the price-point.  At nearly 9 bucks a pop, it's pretty steep.  But if you happen across it and are feeling adventurous, I strongly recommend splitting a bottle with a friend or two, because Pumking is, thus far, the most authentic pumpkin-flavored brew I've come across.  Awesome stuff.  (Grade: A-)

Pumpkin ales are an acquired taste, and are certainly something that most people can only handle a pint or two of in a year, but hopefully my quick little roundup has helped differentiate between the available fare.  Make sure you get the chance to enjoy one while taking down your Halloween decorations or after raking up the last of the autumn leaves, cause they won't be there for long.  Christmas is right around the corner, after all...

Pictured: Tomorrow, according to the nation's malls.


  1. I just tried the Southern Tier Imperial Pumking a few days ago, and didn't get any "pumpkin pie" flavour out of it at all. It was definitely spicy-something, but I wasn't sure what, maybe ginger or mace. I can't say I really liked it.

    I still have Post Road and Great Lakes Pumpkin ales to try, so I'll see how my impressions match up with yours.

  2. Glad you had a chance to try it - everyone's opinions are going to be different. I've noticed a discrepancy among reviewers on BA as well - a lot of people get big pumpkin pie flavor, others lean to be more spice heavy and don't get the same effect. I wonder if it's what we decide pumpkin pie "tastes" like - everyone makes it or prefers it differently. Who knows?

    I wasn't a big fan of Post Road; maybe you'll dig that one more for the same reason? - M