Your Beermonger: Pumpkin Beer Showdown 2012

Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway)

This past weekend I got to try out a slew of this year’s Pumpkin beers and fall seasonals with my wife’s and my friend Chassie Smith, who keeps a blog called Chassie’s Food And TV (guess what it’s about). A self-proclaimed beer novice, Chassie is a fan of just about all things pumpkin and wanted to get a couple different perspectives on the myriad of Pumpkin Ales on the market. To this end, she brought a few beers over, I brought a few from work, and we tasted them all to see what we liked, what we didn’t, and talk a bit about why one beer worked while another didn’t. For those curious, here are full notes and opinions about the beers we tried:

Blue Moon Caramel Apple Spiced Ale: This new seasonal from MillerCoors’ infamous “faux Craft” label uses apple juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and caramel malts to create a brownish Ale that targets both Pumpkin Ale drinkers and cider fans. Despite my feelings about Blue Moon as an idea and a brand, this wasn’t nearly the awful mess I was expecting: in some ways it’s a pleasant enough fall beer, with the spices popping up on the front palate and apples coming through on the finish. The Spiced Ale may show too much focus-group style compromise, though; not beery enough for beer geeks, and not cidery enough for the cider fans.

Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat Ale: Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top line is a response to MillerCoors’ efforts to make consumers think they’re drinking a craft beer with Blue Moon. Shock Top’s Pumpkin Wheat is new for 2012, with pumpkin and spices added to the base Belgian-influenced Wheat Ale. Out of the whole lineup, this was the lightest on the palate and weakest in pumpkin/spice character. As a Belgian Wheat Ale, Shock Top is slightly watery and astringent to begin with; this Pumpkin Wheat variant is simply *blah*.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale: Remember us talking about Pumpkin Ales and other fall seasonals were arriving so early this year? It’s Harvest Moon’s fault. I started seeing this stuff on retailers’ shelves in July this year, as MillerCoors (smartly, from a business sense) played the odds knowing that folks tend to buy the first seasonal beer they see and then stick to that beer throughout that season. As a beer, Harvest Moon is…ok. It’s a perfectly serviceable Pumpkin Ale, if a little watery feeling. On its own Harvest Moon may have been a pleasant surprise; next to the true Craft Beers that came after it, it was exposed for its muted notes and thinner mouthfeel.

Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale: One of the first Pumpkin Ales I fell in love with, Dogfish Head’s seasonal offering went through several variations before seeming to settle in about 3-4 years ago. It had been some time since my last Punkin’, so I was curious to see how it was doing. The Dogfish stands out for its malty character, focused spice, and ‘big’ feel on the palate. Punkin’ Ale isn’t my favorite for the season, but it’s a good beer and deserves its popularity.

Terrapin Pumpkinfest: (Note—this beer is gone for the year) This was a pleasant surprise for me this year. We didn’t see any of this seasonal from Athens, GA last year but got a very short run of it for 2012. Thinking just outside the box as they usually do, the gang at Terrapin couldn’t decide whether to make a Pumpkin Ale or an Oktoberfest, so they made a beer that is both. The Pumpkinfest is a subtly brilliant idea; the Marzen-style Lager is a great base for an easy-drinking, approachable Pumpkin beer that allows for the gourd and spices to show through without using an overwhelming amount of them. Wish there was more of this.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale: For the past few years, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale has been The Daddy when it comes to Pumpkin Ales in our home. A wonderfully balanced big beer, Imperial Pumpkin is darker than the Dogfish Head yet doesn’t come across as being as much of a Brown Ale as Punkin’. The spices are bold but show enough restraint to keep this beer drinkable. Still a go-to after all these years.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale: (Note—this beer is gone for the year) After last fall’s release of Schlafly Pumpkin, I spent the better part of a year telling my wife all about how this was going to be her new favorite Pumpkin Ale. That’s a lot of buildup and a lot of expectation for a beer to live up to, but it only took a few seconds this past weekend for my wife to nod and agree that there was a new #1 Pumpkin Ale in our house. Schlafly’s Pumpkin is cinnamon-heavy and pumpkin pie-esque, and while at 8% ABV it’s in no way a lighter beer it comes across as a more drinkable, less insane version of the venerable Pumking. That’s a winning formula in my book.

Southern Tier Pumking: (Note—currently out of stock at Arrowine, but more is on the way) The big-noise maker; the boldest and most brash of the Pumpkin Ales on the market. Pumpkin pie in a bottle — that’s how Southern Tier broke through and placed their nearly 9% monster in front of an increasingly competitive market segment. The first impression is a tidal wave of graham cracker, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet pumpkin, not unlike pie filling. Pumking is an achievement for sure, an extremely well-thought craft beer that has drawn attention from those who wouldn’t even look to beer otherwise. For me, though, Pumking is a bit of a caricature; a cartoon. Pumking is without a doubt delicious, but to me it’s simply too much; too sweet, too massive, and too heavy to enjoy more than the little bit I had. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I’ll take a more drinkable Schlafly six-pack that I can have two or three of any day of the week. Pumking does need to be experienced to be believed, however.

No matter which fall seasonal is your favorite, I hope you get to have as good a time with as fun a group as I did this weekend. Until next time.

Cheers!

Nick Anderson maintains a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger. Sign up for Arrowine’s money saving email offers and free wine and beer tastings at www.arrowine.com/mailing-list-signup.aspx. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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