The air's getting just a little bit crisp. The leaves are starting to fall. And football fans are finally getting their much-needed fix. And that means it's pumpkin ale time, once again.
Pumpkin beer dates way back to the colonial era, but they fell out of favor before making a return in the 1980s. Buffalo Bill's Brewery claims responsibility for reviving the style, and now it has many worthy competitors.
Today, there are hundreds of different pumpkin beers to choose from, with over a dozen options available to us in Charleston. We took the liberty of sampling many of them, including the "original" Buffalo Bill's. Though we suffered through some bad beers, there were quite a few tasty treats. Pumpkin, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg were common flavor notes throughout the night. Where some beers had too much spice, others lacked flavor. We picked the five most drinkable pumpkin beers that we sampled. Here's the lowdown.
If you're a fan of pumpkin pie that has an extra buttery crust, this is the beer for you. Stick your nose in the glass and you'll get pumpkin pie spices, vanilla, and buttery biscuits. The flavor follows suit with spices like cloves, a huge gush of sweet vanilla, and a prominent buttered graham cracker taste with roasted pecans and subtle brown sugar. The butter comes through a lot more than in previous years, which is why this year's batch ranks a few spots below the norm.
It's a no-brainer that Jolly Pumpkin should have a pumpkin ale. However, they didn't brew a pumpkin beer for several years, and they caught some flak for it. Like other Jolly Pumpkin beers, La Parcela is aged in oak barrels and carries a lot of funk. It also doesn't exude a whole lot of pumpkin and spice, unlike the rest of the beers on this list, and it tastes a bit like a citrus-infused wheat beer when it first hits the tongue, with a touch of clove and cocoa in the middle. La Parcela finishes thin and sour. It may not have the in-your-face pumpkin-pie flavor that some are looking for, but it's a solid tart, funkified brew that will make your tongue quiver.
Weyerbacher is known for making bold, delicious beers, and their Imperial Pumpkin Ale is no exception. This one packs a punch, putting big pumpkin spices in your face. This dark copper, medium-bodied brew has a strong presence of nutmeg and cinnamon in the nose and is slightly sweet, but not too syrupy, with a mild alcohol burn as it goes down. The bready malts give it a bit of dryness, making it a very drinkable beer.
Anyone that got a chance to watch Brew Masters before it was canceled learned that Punkin' Ale was Dogfish Head's flagship beer. It all started in 1994 when founder Sam Calagione took his spiced pumpkin homebrew to Delaware's Punkin Chunkin festival six months before Dogfish Head opened. This may not be the original pumpkin ale, but it's been around long enough to gain a big following, and it's consistent year in and year out. It's substantially less sweet than other pumpkin beers, which is nice, though it still has a lingering alcohol presence. The flavors balance each other out very well, allowing you to drink it pint after pint, unlike a majority of pumpkin beers where you're done after one.
Out of all the beers on this list, Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin is the most underrated. Shipyard makes two seasonal pumpkin ales: Pumpkinhead and Smashed Pumpkin. Pumpkinhead is worth sampling, but Smashed Pumpkin is where it's at. The pumpkin itself is more prominent in this beer than others; there's also less spice. And at 9 percent abv., this is the strongest beer of the group. The alcohol is masked much better than with the other pumpkin ales, though it becomes more prominent as the beer warms up. Serving it just above room temperature really brings out the cloves and warm cinnamon nicely. Nutmeg and a dash of ginger follows the cloves, and a sweet pumpkin hoppiness trickles down the palate. There's a body to this beer that some pumpkin ales lack.