Written by Tom Becham
In years past, I have submitted a great number of reviews to PGA for pumpkin ales. The very simple reason for this is that my wife loves pumpkin and pumpkin spice flavors, so the beer will be in the house anyway. And I always like to try new things.
So, here are a few more seasonal brews I’ve had the past couple of weeks, and my impressions of them.
My first review is actually an Oktoberfest beer. Karl Strauss is a regional brewer in Southern California, with a chain of brewpubs. Their beers are generally brewpub-standard styles (which is to say, not extreme, and therefore not exciting to many beer geeks) but generally very well done. Their Okto (called, imaginatively enough, Oktoberfest) is no exception. At only 5% ABV – slightly understrength for the style – Strauss’s Okto starts with a very grainy, malty aroma, caramel undertones snaking into the nostrils on occasion. The flavor is much the same, with the finish dry and reminiscent of hazelnut. It is not a terribly complex beer, but it is quite good, and suitable for session drinking.
Now, the following pumpkin ales I will review in order of worst to best. In this case, the ranking is based not necessarily just on how good a beer it is I’m reviewing, but on how well the beer represents a pumpkin ale.
My least favorite is from Anderson Valley, and is called Fall Hornin’. No, they’re not talking about animal mating out of season, the name supposedly means something in the invented dialect of the Anderson Valley in Northern California (I don’t care enough to find out what). The beer is a spice rack on the nose. Just an undifferentiated spice rack, with nothing dominant. Not even necessarily pumpkin pie spice in the aroma, either. The taste is blatantly and offensively metallic at first. As the beer warms, it becomes a poorly-blended mass of pumpkin spices. No actual pumpkin is ever evident in the beer. Not sure what the hell Anderson Valley was thinking with this one. And at 6% ABV, it won’t even get me drunk, short of an entire six-pack. They’re capable of much better. In fairness, another beer geek of my acquaintance liked this one, and didn’t find any of the objectionable qualities in it that I did. Perhaps the can had gone bad, or the batch was turned, somehow.
Next up is Pumpkin Ale from Smuttynose Brewing. I have many acquaintances from the Mid Atlantic and New England areas who love anything produced by Smuttynose. I’ve never really understood why. My knowledge isn’t helped much by this beer, either. The beer is thin, watery, rather lifeless, and dominated by spices, particularly a very earthy ginger that tastes much like dirt mixed with old coffee grounds. In its defense, at least it doesn’t taste like metal, or have any overt flaws, aside from a misjudged flavor profile. The information on the bottle label was quite limited, almost as if Smuttynose was somewhat ashamed of selling this beer. Pass on this one, too.
It pains me to put Ballast Point’s Pumpkin Down at this point in the list, but remember my criterion: I’m judging these beers based on how good they are as pumpkin ales. Pumpkin Down is a pumpkin infused and spiced version of Ballast Point’s wildly popular Scottish Ale, Piper Down. I eagerly wanted to try this, as the base beer for most pumpkin ales is either a bland amber/red ale (which gets overwhelmed by spice) or a porter/stout (in which no pumpkin, and precious little spice can peek through). I figured Piper Down – a delicious beer in its own right – might make the perfect base for a pumpkin ale. And don’t get me wrong, Pumpkin Down is an excellent beer. The caramelly malt doesn’t quite approach sweetness before being moderated by an earthy hop, and the spices make a late appearance as the brew warms. And at 5.8%, it isn’t by any means overwhelming. But it’s a disappointment as a pumpkin beer. It’s more of a beer that happens to have pumpkin and spices in it. Nice try, Ballast Point, and I like your idea (and had much the same one myself), but it didn’t quite work.
Half Moon Bay Brewing has happier results with their more traditional pumpkin ale. The nose is a nice melding of pumpkin and spices. The color (as is the case with all these beers) is a nice amber-brown. Not much head, and a thin body and mouthfeel. However, the pumpkin presence carries through in the flavor, faintly, but enough. The spices are somewhat muted, which makes for a nice mix with the pumpkin and caramel malt. This is a good one. Recommended.
Finally, I come to Elysian Brewing’s Night Owl. According to the label, Elysian uses toasted and untoasted pumpkin *seeds* in the brew, besides just pumpkin and spices. And the results speak for themselves. This is quite possibly the best pumpkin ale I’ve tasted. The aroma features pumpkin and spices and a bready malt in multi-layered harmony. The flavor also tastes far more pumpkin-y than any of the other beers in this review. And when this beer is balanced at a particular temperature sweet-spot, for a few brief minutes, it is truly like drinking grandma’s pumpkin pie (if your grandma was a good baker). Once it passes that point, the spices slowly start to become more dominant. Aside from that, the only other flaw is the 6.7% ABV, which can sneak up on a drinker who isn’t careful. Nonetheless, this is my top recommendation for a spiced seasonal ale.
Tom Becham lives in Oxnard, CA and reviews brews and brew based businesses for PGA and other publications, out west, even in Hawaii. We are lucky to have him.