In the craft brewing scene, autumn welcomes the arrival of slightly heavier and darker-colored specialty ales and lagers — many of them flavored with fruit, spices, herbs, chocolates, and vegetables.
There are a few newly-released bottled specialties that specifically use pumpkin and traditional pumpkin pie spices to celebrate the season. Two are outstanding — clean, balanced, and deep in flavor. Two more are like whipped candied sweet-potato casserole.
Baltimore's Currently Clipper City Brewing has an assertive Imperial Pumpkin Ale (part of the company's Heavy Seas line). They add spices and pumpkin during the mash rather than the fermentation process or in the aging casks. They aim for a balance of malt, hops, pumpkin flavor, and spice here — and they nail it. Beautifully clear and light amber in color, Imperial Pumpkin Ale is well-conditioned and surprisingly smooth. Medium-bodied and a little strong at 8.5 percent a.b.v., it's a malty ale with a pronounced clove and peppery allspice finish. Lightly hopped, some citrusy American hop zing blends with spices and seasoning quite nicely.
Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, Pa. has a hearty Imperial Pumpkin Ale. It's a tasty, full-bodied, red-copper-colored ale at 8 percent a.b.v. It pours with a dense, creamy head with a delicate blend of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Weyerbacher also uses cardamom, which enhances the aroma and the crisp, peppery flavor and mellow, malty finish.
The one major brewery in the bunch is Anheuser-Busch, which launched Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale a few years back, the first in their series of seasonal beers, which include Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale, Spring Heat Spiced Wheat, and Beach Bum Blonde Ale. Golden-amber in color, thin-bodied with a fizzy carbonation and little head retention after the pour, Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale is the lightest, weakest (at 5.5 percent a.b.v.), least expensive, and least remarkable of these four. Hints of cinnamon and copper pennies dominate the flavor; there's not a lot of pumpkin going on.
Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale, an orange/amber seasonal ale boasts some sweet 'n' spicy flavors. Packaged in 22-ounce bombers (they're rather pricey at eight or nine bucks a pop), the label boasts ingredients like pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and clove. With a pronounced clove and butterscotch in the aroma, the first few sips certainly conjure the classic pumpkin pie combo of flavors. Medium-bodied and buttery-sweet, it's deceptively strong at 8.4 percent a.b.v. The malty flavor finishes with a little more saltiness and ginger than expected.
For beer drinkers who rarely sample herbed, spiced, or fruit beers like these — or who've never tried an actual pumpkin beer before — we encourage you to get into the spirit of the season and seek out some of the spiciest, tastiest stuff.