Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's the Great Pumpkin Ale, Kansas City!

Ah, September: pilsners and summer ales behind us, Oktoberfests and pumpkin ales on the horizon. I can already smell the wood smoke, pumpkin pie, mulled cider, wet leaves, and smoked turkey. This is, without a doubt, my favorite time of year. (Yes, it's still officially summer but this cool weather is toying with me. Let me have my moment.)

We made a pumpkin ale a few years back; roasted the pumpkin & added it to the boil, fermented the beer and realized... in beer, pumpkin pretty much tastes like a whole lot of nothing. These beers really ought to be called pumpkin pie ales, since the characteristic flavor is the spices, not the squash. A related note to the home brewer: if making a pumpkin beer, skip the pumpkin and just go for the spices. You'll save yourself a lot of work.

Anyway, so I've been working on this idea for weeks: buy a few pumpkin ales and do a blind tasting. John and I decided to each do the blind tasting at the same time, so I stockpiled a few beers over the past few weeks and kept them in the fridge, waiting for the perfect evening. Alas, it finally arrived.

When I got home, we lined up 8 glasses in the kitchen and again in the dining room; seven pumpkin ales and one control (Show-Me Beer's Hamm's that he generously donated to me at the last Brew Day, with a bit of sugar-free Torani pumpkin syrup. Yes, the trashiest pumpkin ale possible. Awesome.). The seven we tried were:
Water crackers and note paper in hand, we set out on our assignment: make comments on our tastings and identify our favorites (and least favorites). The results were interesting. We realized that we had completely different preferences in our pumpkin ales; I liked the hoppier ones and John preferred the ones with more spice. Here are the results, listed in order of our preferences (best to worst):

Ms Wort Hog
  1. New Holland Ichabod: sweet, cinnamon, floral aroma, bitter flavor with lots of hops & nutmeg. Resiny mouthfeel. Like this one a lot.
  2. O’Fallon Pumpkin Beer: brown sugar aroma with flavors of pie crust & spice. Appropriate mouthfeel, a little weighted but not much. The longer I drank this, the more it became my favorite (after I knew what it was, though, so I still rank it #2)
  3. Michelob Jack’s: generic ale aroma, malty, tastes more like an Oktoberfest. Less spice than all of the other pumpkin ales. Spritzy mouthfeel, but not too much. More of a session ale than the others.
  4. Schlafly Pumpkin Ale: Cinnamon & allspice aroma with a really spicy flavor. The high carbonation is a little distracting.
  5. Arcadia Jaw-Jacker: malty with an almost apple liquour type smell. Pretty bitter and kind of strange, with a medicinal/mouthwash taste after a while. Not great.
  6. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale: apple cider aroma, and flavors of clove, clove, clove. Thin mouthfeel with a hint of clove. Clove aftertaste.
  7. Shipyard Pumpkinhead: The worst out of all of them. It smelled like mulled cider, but tasted like sucking on a pine tree. Astringent, piney, weird. Thin mouthfeel and overall a drainpour.

Mr Wort Hog
  1. Schlafly Pumpkin Ale: Aroma & flavor by the book, pumpkin pie spice. Alcohol warmth with no heat (it completely surprised me that this beer is 8% ABV!). "Great beer!"
  2. Shipyard Pumpkinhead: very clear, aroma is spice, warm, not harsh, lighter body. Flavor like aroma, warm, spiciness, not much else.
  3. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale: Good spice aroma & flavor, good body, well-balanced
  4. O’Fallon Pumpkin Beer: Good head retention, cloudy. Warm cinnamon aroma. Some roasted pumpkin almost reminiscent of roasted tea. Sweet, very spiced, cloying.
  5. Arcadia Jaw-Jacker: Good head retention & lacing, a little cloudy. Strong spice aroma, maybe clove. Spice a little harsh, very full body, a little medicinal/astringent.
  6. New Holland Ichabod: More hop than spice flavor. Little phenolic, spice there but not pleasant or familiar to pumpkin pie.
  7. Michelob Jack’s: faint spice & bread aroma. Weak spice flavor. Thin body, maybe noble hops. "eh."

If anything, this little experiment proved that taste really is widely subjective and what some people rave about as the best beer in the world may very well be middle-of-the-road to others. Clearly, I preferred the hoppier, less spicy beers while Mr Wort Hog got into the spirit of the spice. I'm embarrassed to see that I ranked Michelob higher than Schlafly. I'll make up for it when we get to my favorite seasonal category, winter beers!

* Note one afterthought - though I didn't include it, Southern Tier's Pumking is excellent and worth your money (comes in a bomber only). And Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale is fantastic... but alas, we cannot get it here.


  1. Cloves are the single worst spice in the world.

  2. Great read and interesting results. It appears that, with the exception of the Shipyard, I fall in line more w/ Mr. Wort Hog. I am with you on that one though, it's awful!

  3. "What some people rave about as the best beer in the world may very well be middle-of-the-road to others"; I totally agree. I was listening to Jamil Z. today from an recent archive and he mentioned how he just couldn't get enough Bitch Creek ESB, it was a but disappointing. 8(


  4. Oh that ESB is not an ESB! I think it tastes really good, but if an ESB is what you're after, you won't like it. It's way too hoppy and way too boozy for an ESB, sheesh. I think Mr Wort Hog hit the nail on the head when he said it was more like a hoppy American Brown Ale.

    I think this pumpkin ale tasting was one of my favorite things I've done for this blog so far. I might do another one for a different style. Maybe winter beers...

  5. To me the Shipyard tasted like someone dumped Red Hots into the fermenter. All I got was cinnamon. Schlafley and Southern Tier are my favorite. Although I haven't seen any Pumpking around yet.

  6. I should try a pumpkin beer flight for Halloween. Thanks for planting the idea early; I presume it will allow me to keep my eyes peeled for a good variety. I wouldn't normally lean towards O'Fallon (just haven't been a fan thus far) but I think I will have to add them to the list for sure after your tasting.

    As for the ESB, I didn't classify it either, that would be Grand Teton, and I am sure saw my post about it (more of a DIPA update rather).


  7. Great post and pictures. Opposites attract aparently.

  8. Mr. Wort Hog knows what's up. Schlafly is the tops! :-)

    What I really want to know is, what did you think of the Hamm's


Tasting Notes