Saturday, October 05, 2013

Where Have the Tasty Pumpkin Beers Gone?

September and October have, in the past decade or so, become a time when breweries can freely experiment with adding spices galore to dark beers and sometimes saisons and creating a pumpkin wonderland. As more beer makers have ventured into these efforts, many of them have become quite good at it.

But something seems to have gone awry in 2013, as the pumpkin experiments have become more of the mad-scientist or bland-scientist variety. And finding a great pumpkin beer has become decidedly difficult this year, even from breweries that otherwise make some great ales.

One of the problems is an over-reliance by brewers on cinnamon to spice the beers, creating what might be called "cinnamon bombs." Hop bombs can be pleasantly challenging; cinnamon bombs, not so much.

 The primary example of this is Elysian Brewing's The Great Pumpkin, a beer that, at its best, has been one of most flavorful in the country, approximating the taste of sticking a straw into an alcoholic pumpkin pie. The imperial 2013 version, however, is so cinnamon-heavy it's almost medicinal, and it creates a whole new level of bitterness.

Similarly but not as offensively, the Dry Dock Imperial Pumpkin also relies so much on cinnamon that it brings to mind the taste of mulled wine.

Then there is the opposite but just as prevalent trend — "pumpkin" beers that have just a hint of pumpkin and seem to concentrate far more on the base style than the special spicing. These are not necessarily bad beers, but they are disappointments when you go in looking for a new kind of creation.

A prime example of this is Denver Beer Co's Hey Pumpkin! (which I'm drinking at Freshcraft in the photo above). Denver Beer Co. normally doesn't skimp on flavor, but this is more like an amber ale with barely a hint of nutmeg, almost a starter pumpkin beer.

Epic Brewing created an Imperial Pumpkin Porter that is impressive in its strength and darkness, but the pumpkin is almost an afterthought. Ditto for Tommyknocker Brewery's Small Batch Pumpkin Ale, which is so light in pumpkin that it's forgotten even before it's down your throat.

There are a few notable exceptions to this year's patch of disappointment. Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, for example, is a full-mouthed taste aided by a pinch of ginger that cuts the sharpness of the cinnamon.

The biggest surprise of the season, though, is St. Ambroise Pumpkin, the product of McAuslan Brewing of Quebec A full but not heavy beer with a big taste of nutmeg, it has both sweet and spicy tones and seems to capture the mellowing but intriguing spirit of the fall season. And that seems to make it a rarity this year.

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