Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pumpkin Ales: A Comparative Study, Part 1

Welcome to October, my friends — the most wonderful time of the beer. It's the month that inspired U2's great song/album October, the month that moved the Germans to devote an entire 30-day stretch of the calendar to the celebration of beer... and the month that transforms happy little orange gourds into fearsome jack'o'lanterns across North America. It's a glorious month, and while Oktoberfest beers are a wonder in and of themselves, the sudden and simultaneous proliferation of similarly seasonal Pumpkin Ales is one of the great, consistent joys of my life.

Dozens of great microbreweries nationwide have taken to brewing Pumpkin Ales; as it happens, the wares of three of them made it into my fridge - and, subsequently, into my mouth - over the past week. Shall we review, I ask the crowd? "Oh, yes," you say. "We shall."

Win the crowd, and you win your freedom.

1. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
I've been a bigbigbig fan of Smuttynose for quite some time now. Brewing out of beautiful Portsmouth, NH, they produce a wide range of generally quite good beers that are available across New England and - if you happen to be in Portsmouth proper - in the truly wonderful Portsmouth Brewery. So it was with great joy that I found myself face-to-six-pack last week with a six of Smutty's Pumpkin Ale at one of my local fine purveyors of hopped goodness.

Unfortunately... I've gotta admit: I was less-than-thrilled with the result. Overall, the brew has a lovely amber color and very subtle spicing for the genre, but there's a kind of lasting bitterness that arises in the aftertaste that ultimately overwhelms the mellow pleasures of the beer itself. This is the part where I should probably go into some kind of long-winded explanation of how that's a function of the hops and blahblahblah... but really, the fact of the matter is this: the beer was okay, but the aftertaste was bitter enough that after TheWife and I had both downed one (well, alright... it was two for me) we looked at each other and said, "This isn't actually all that good."

I won't hesitate to try other Smutty seasonals, but going forward I'm thinking this is one I'll be avoiding.

2. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Great googly moogly — now THIS is how you do a pumpkin beer. The spicing is clearly present but also extremely well-balanced: the pumpkin, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg add wonderful layers to the rich brown ale rather than overwhelming it, which is always the risk you face with spiced beers. It's a rich, full flavor but not so rich that it's too-filling... we actually found it to be a very adept accompaniment to food that actually added to our enjoyment of it, rather than competing with it as so many other spiced or heavy beers may do.

My one complaint: four-packs! It's like the packaging is custom-designed to build you up to a nice little happy place, ready for reach for another one... only to discover THEY'RE GONE. Of course, this is something that Dogfish likes to do with many of their seasonal or über-artisinal beers, so I suppose that's the price you pay for delving into the Dogfish world. But as is true of just about everything they brew... they do it right, and even though you're paying a premium for fewer beers, you're getting a legitimate, top-quality product for your money.

You rarely regret going Dogfish Head, and the Punkin Ale is no exception. Outstanding.

3. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
This is the first Weyerbacher I've ever tried, and it's very, very impressive. I'll have to admit that going into it, I had a couple of reasons for trepidation. First off... this was another four-pack, and one even more expensive than the Dogfish Head I'd enjoyed so heartily earlier in the week. I think it was something like $12 for the four-pack, plus deposit — which it's hard not to admit is a rather hefty investment. Secondly, I've had mixed feelings about Imperial Ales in the past. TheWife is a big fan, but I tend to find myself a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the Imperial hops. Our divergence over Harpoon's Leviathan Imperial IPA this summer was a case in point; I found it ultra-hoppy to the point of being almost unbearably bitter, whereas she went completely head-over-heels for it.

Nevertheless, I forked over my fortune-for-a-four-pack (and you're most welcome for that crafty bit of alliteration, btw), and brought the pumpkin-headed beast back home with me. It sat waiting in my fridge for nearly a full day until this afternoon, as I sat down to watch the Pats take on (and ultimately defeat) the Baltimore Ravens... when I felt the need come upon me, so during a timeout I repaired to the kitchen and opened a bottle.

To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the result was clearly very, very pleasing. The Imperial hops are a strong presence, but not one nearly as overwhelming as I feared — in fact, they worked in symphony with the delicate spicing (which included cardimom and clove) to create something very balanced, flavorful and entirely enjoyable. I'd say that overall it's a less-spiced animal than the Dogfish Head, but the spices are still a tangible enough presence that they add character and depth to the brew. It's an interesting contrast to the Dogfish - which, honestly, I'd presumed would be the best Pumpkin beer I'd taste this year - and a drinking experience pleasurable enough that if I had to choose one over another... honestly, I'm not sure which way I'd go.

But really? It's a win-win. Check 'em both out. And then, let me know: what else do I need to taste?


Always Home and Uncool said...

A good pumpkin ale is inspiring. A bad one (Jack's, Post Road) is heartbreaking.

Thanks for the tips, TB.

TwoBusy said...

Agreed on Post Road. I made that mistake several years ago, took a break of about 2 years, came back and found it no better.