They’re back. Though perhaps I should apologize for making it sound as if the tsunami of pumpkin ales sweeping our local liquor store shelves just arrived, because it all started in late July/early August. Gets earlier and earlier, doesn’t it? I hate the “creep” of these seasonal beers, particularly pumpkin ales. If I start seeing spring beers in February, that’s something I can deal with - this is South Florida, after all, where the average February temperature is 75-80 degrees. That’s perfect spring beer weather – witbiers, saisons, bring ‘em on! But pumpkin in August? That’s just wrong.
Still, despite the protests of such curmudgeonly beer geeks, these pumpkin ales hit the shelves when it’s 95 degrees out, and the general public laps them up. They are popular. Now don’t get me wrong, craft beer popularity is a great thing. It’s just that come Thanksgiving-time, when one might actually want a bottle of Cigar City’s excellent Good Gourd to pair with a traditional dinner, forget about finding one on the shelves, because everyone bought them all up way back around Labor Day. It’s ridiculous. Eating pumpkin is so linked to Thanksgiving dinner, it’s a shame to not have the best pumpkin beers around to further tie into that tradition.
But that’s my rant. They’re here, ready or not, so I suppose a brief buyers’ guide based on a flight of 3 pumpkin ales I recently had at Ft. Lauderdale’s Tap 42 is appropriate.
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin
At around 6%, this was the lightest-bodied of the beers I tried. I wasn’t expecting much, because truth be told, I think Harpoon’s regular UnFiltered Offering is a little lame, like a neutered hefeweizen. It was a pleasant surprise, though, with a nice crisp, clean wheaty foundation, and a straightforward but bright-tasting pure pumpkin spice flavor riding above. Easy drinking, and much better in this sessionable-pumpkin ale segment, I think, than Shipyard’s popular Pumpkinhead.
Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale
When I first started getting serious about beer years ago, I’d look forward to this one every fall. It was always fuller-bodied and boasted more flavor complexity than whatever else was available down here at the time. Over the years, though, the color of the beer seems to have become much lighter. I swear I remember this being more of a dark brown ale, way back in ’05-’07 – now it’s more of an amber. I could be wrong, but I don’t think my memory has deceived me. Beyond that, I find that this beer gets worse and worse every year, and I’m a Dogfish Head fan. This year’s edition takes the cake, though – I found the flavor to be downright muddy, with hints of unwelcome diacetyl (buttered-popcorn flavor). The pumpkin in this beer was never overwhelming even during its best years, but it used to taste like a Fall Cornucopia. Now it just tastes cluttered, and not in a “good, complex” way.
Southern Tier Pumking
The undisputed heavyweight champion of this flight of 3. If all that’s desired in a pumpkin ale is a full-bodied beer that tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie, here it is. Or perhaps this could even substitute for the pumpkin pie. Like most, if not all, of the Southern Tier “Imperial” series, the 9% Pumking is entirely lacking in subtlety – and here, I think that’s a good thing. It has “wow factor,” i.e. pumpkin pie right up in your face. Bring this to a Halloween party, and odds are that many fellow partiers will never have tasted a beer quite like it before. Beers like this are great for opening the eyes of people who equate “beer” with Bud Light, and Southern Tier brews a number of them. Even if I find it a bit too over-the-top for regular drinking, the Pumking will have its day.
Cheers everyone….and for god’s sake, save some pumpkin beers for the holidays.