The Great Pumpkin Beer Taste-Off: 2016 Edition

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The Great Pumpkin Beer Taste-Off: 2016 Edition

The line-up. Pictured: Julie Hruska, Jeff Mason, Sean Illgen, Photo: Erin Fowler.

I love pumpkin beer, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Pumpkin beer, the orange-headed stepchild of the beer world, actually has quite a history. When settlers first arrived on ye olde shores of North America, there was very little in the way of traditional European brewing ingredients, like barley. So people made do with what they had, creating corn-based beers, ciders, and, yes, pumpkin beer. Born of necessity and a hardscrabble, MacGyver-ish creative spirit, pumpkin beer now clings to the edges of respectability for many beer enthusiasts. 

People seem to either love or hate pumpkin beer. The most divisive of beer styles, pumpkin beer is brewed with vast quantities of--you guessed it--pumpkin, along with a heady blend of spices, which might include clove, cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg. Flavors fall along a vast spectrum, from bitter to sweet, heavily spiced to subtle. The choices are a bit overwhelming, and in recent years--after one particularly bad pumpkin beer experience--I tend to fall back on my old standbys rather than venture out into new territory.

But I always wonder at the brews I haven't tried. So this year, I decided to do something about it. I headed over to Earth Fare and picked up four pumpkin beers, as well as one "dark horse" contestant, a carrot beer, and I took it to a cookout for a tasting. A friend also picked up a growler of pumpkin beer at Harris Teeter for us to try. I asked tasting participants to rate the six total beers based on the following: taste, aroma, drinkability, aftertaste, and bottle design (because, frankly, this is such a huge part of the seasonal beer world!). The rating system was as follows: 

1: Get this out of my body!

2: Well, at least it's got alcohol

3: Meh

4: Worth having again

5: Dangerously good

Here's what we tried:

Catawba King Don's

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

Southern Tier's Pumking

New Belgium Pumpkick

Saranac Pumpkin Ale

Stone Brewing 24 Carrot Golden Ale

The results are in. While the first place and runners-up were relatively close in score, there was a pretty definite loser. People's palates really are all over the place when it comes to pumpkin beer (our winner was judged as "mediocre" by a couple of tasters), but it was interesting to see some standards emerge. 

Best Overall Beer

New Belgium Pumpkick

Average Score: 17.71

This year's batch of Pumpkick is sittin' pretty at the top of our list. Asheville's newest big brewery on the scene held it down with their not-to-sweet, spiced, and highly quaffable take on the pumpkin beer. The unique thing about this beer, according to most of the tasters, was its cranberry-forward flavor. We all liked the design well enough, which incorporated the two main elements of the beer (pumpkin and cranberry) and threw in a crow. Because crows. 

ABV: 6%

Taster comments: "Complex, wih the sweet and tart flavor of cranberry sauce."

"Cranberry taste is dominant."

"Mediocre." 

"I could definitely have a couple."

"Cranberry + pumpkin = yum!"

1st Runner Up

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

Average score: 17.31

While this beer was rated highly enough to be the runner-up, everyone agreed on one thing: it didn't much taste like pumpkin ("That's why I like it!" exclaimed our taster Steven.). The Punkin Ale was heavier and yeastier than our winner, with a mellow, slightly bitter aftertaste. This bottle was the definite standout in our design category.

ABV: 7%

Taster comments: "It's a lovely color, but it's not particularly pumpkiny."

"Malty"

"I could drink this twice." 

"Perfect bitter/sweet balance. Really like the design." 

"Good ALE. Bad pumpkin beer." 

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"Very malty. Spice level is overall smooth and not overpowering. Not so pumpkiny. Artwork on bottle is exceptional." 

"Smells like an average craft beer. Not very festive." 

2nd Runner Up

Stone Brewing 24 Carrot Golden Ale (with Juli Goldenberg and Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery)

Average score: 17.04

Our not-a-true pumpkin beer took home 3rd prize at the tasting, proving once again that many people just aren't that crazy about pumpkin beer. This Belgian-style brew won Stone's 2015 Homebrewing Competition and was inspired by one of the most divisive of desserts: the carrot cake. Higher in alcohol than most of our other contestants, it had one of the most complex flavor profiles, smelled great, and also tasted pretty boozy. The aftertaste was a little harsh and bitter for some tasters. This was another high score in the bottle design category. 

ABV: 8.5%

Taster comments: "Complex AF. Like a culinary journey with a buzz at the end. I think I overthought this flavor description, which required constant re-tastings. ;)" 

"This one is strange. Aftertaste is terrible. The aroma is better than the taste. I love Stone Brewery, but this one is not their best."

"Reminds me of soda--not a fan. Aroma is sweet and spicy with nice vanilla. It's hard to drink." 

"Aroma of skunked Heineken." 

"Good at first, then very bitter. Not super drinkable because it's very strong." 

"Sweet, frothy, and complex. Similar to a lot of Golden's." 

"Like a hug from Nanna. Tastes like day drunk."

Worst Overall Beer

Southern Tier Pumking

Average score: 11.39

Reader, I must confess. I originally wanted to have a pumpkin beer taste-off because Southern Tier's Pumking consistently gets some of the highest across-the-board reviews in the pumpkin beer category, and I am not a fan. So I wanted to see what other people thought. Most of our tasters agreed that this was the sweetest, most dessert-like of the beers we tasted. It was also the strongest. It absolutely tastes the most like a pumpkin pie, with bold, heavy flavors and lots of spice. But I like pumpkin pie, so what's up with that? Several tasters did love this one, though, so don't knock it out of the running on my account.

ABV: 8.6%

Taster comments: "Yeasty. Smells creamy. Dessert beer. Suits fall but not me. New York can keep this one!"

"Sweet. Sweet. Sweet."

"Smells yummy, warm and delicious like pie. Rather sweet after a few sips."

"Sweet, complex, thick. Keeps getting sweeter."

"Hints of yuckiness. Nausea notes." 

"The pumpkin spice latte of beer. Got better as I drank more (who would have thunk it?)."

"Very strange."

"No good. Way too much 'flavor.'"

Our other two contestants, Catawba Brewing's King Don's Original Pumpkin Ale and Saranac's Pumpkin Ale, fell somewhere in the middle. King Don's (which is actually one of my go-to's) had a score average of 15.86 and was considered one of the most drinkable and lightest tasting, with good flavor and spice but less complexity and a taste that faded quickly but left a touch of lingering spice ("It tastes like it should, and it's nothing special," said one taster). Saranac's fared a bit worse, with an average score of 11.76. It was the final beer of the tasting, and by that point several tasters had wandered off, presumably to walk off their day drunk. Our palates were also all pretty fatigued despite our committed chomping of crackers and grapes, so I'd like to try this one again at some point.  
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So what have we learned from all of this? Some things appear to be consistent across tasters, which led to relative stability in our judging and criteria. Some people really just don't like pumpkin beer. Dogfhish Head's Punkin Ale is a good choice if you want to feel festive but are a hater. And design, while entirely separate from taste and quality, is actually pretty important when it comes to seasonal beers.  

I'd like to give a shout-out to our amazing gang of tasters. While all of the information was good and everybody took the tasting very seriously (despite the fact that it was getting harder and harder to concentrate!) we had a few stand-out tasters. The awards for best comments go to:

Jeff Mason and Joey Moore: Tied in first place, these guys held it down. Their hilarious insights helped me stay excited about the tasting and writing this story, which involved doing math.

Second place goes to Jassim Cox, who was not afraid to use his extensive repertoire of beer knowledge to give top-notch and impressive analysis of every beer. 

Congratulations, yo! I'd buy you guys a beer, but after buying five six-packs, I'm broke.

Special thanks to Hannah Richardson for bringing more pumpkin beer, to Erin Fowler and Julie Hruska for capturing Kodak moments, and to Steven Ayres for the inexpressibly good Irish Car Bomb cupcakes that we used to completely destroy our palates after the tasting. And a big thank you to everyone else who came, tasted, supported, and hung out in the lovely fall weather. 

Happy fall, y'all! What pumpkin beers do you love (or love to hate)? Let us know!