When many people think of beer they think of the big guys, Budweiser, Coors, and Miller.  They think of beer as tasting like, well, beer from one of those breweries. 

Thinking like that though is limiting your palette to a very small selection.  The world of microbrewed and craft brewed beers can help open your world up to a wide, wide variety of flavors.  Flavors and styles of beers that will make most rethink what beer is exactly. 

A selection of pumpkin beers available this season.  - Photo by Carrie E. Cox
A selection of pumpkin beers available this season. - Photo by Carrie E. Cox

This time of year is especially unique in the selection of beers brewed with pumpkin.

According to the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Style Guidelines, there are 23 recognized style categories for beers.  Pumpkin beers fall under Style #21, specifically style #21A: Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer.  According to their definition for the Overall Impression, beers in this category should have “a harmonious marriage of spices, herbs and/or vegetables and beer. The key attributes of the underlying style will be different with the addition of spices, herbs and/or vegetables; do not expect the base beer to taste the same as the unadulterated version.”

While you can find fruit and vegetable flavored beers, among many other varieties, any time of year, the pumpkin beers are a special and favorite draw among brewers, perhaps in the continuous quest to blend the taste of pumpkin pie with the taste of beer. 

A recent look around the Valley reveals plenty of sources for pumpkin beers.  Wine Gourmet, located in Promenade Park off of Electric Rd., Mr. Bill’s Wine Cellar on Brambleton Ave., Vintage Cellar in Christiansburg, and Countryside Classics on Main St. in Salem, along with other stores throughout the Valley all offer a wide selection, though their supplies do begin to dwindle the closer it gets to Halloween. 

To help you find your way through the myriad of pumpkin beers, we recently did a taste testing.  First up was Post Road Pumpkin Ale brewed by Brooklyn Brewery.  This beer has a 5% ABV rating.  A beer’s ABV (Alcohol By Volume) rating simply represents what portion of the total volume of liquid is alcohol.  The color was that of honey and it had a very nice, spiced aroma.  We’ve had this beer before and always enjoyed it.  Beer Advocate gives it an overall ‘B’ rating, which is good as well.  However, this particular time we tried it there was an off-taste, making it not as enjoyable.  Since this has never been a problem in the past we would certainly give this beer another try, there might have just been a problem with this batch.  Remember, crafting beers is an art form!

Next up was Pumple Drumkin Spiced Ale by Cisco Brewers.  This one has a B+ rating on Beer Advocate.  We found that it has a nice head and a good amber color.  The beer was cloudy, indicating that it had likely been bottle conditioned.  Though there we didn’t detect many spices in the taste we did pick up a distinct squash flavor.  Remember, pumpkins are a variety of squash, so this isn’t a bad thing.  Overall we found the beer to be a mellow one and pretty good. 

We next tasted Starr Hill’s Boxcar Pumpkin Porter.  This beer is brewed in Crozet, VA, just outside Charlottesville.  It also has the distinction of being a little different than most pumpkin beers because it is also a porter.  The result?  The color was nice and dark, and there was a mild spice aroma.  It was full bodied but lacking in any “oomph” flavor.  It wasn’t a bad beer, just an OK one.  Beer Advocate rates this as B-.

Sticking with the tastings that were a little different, we next sampled Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout, brewed by Cape Ann Brewing.  Now, Fisherman’s also has an Imperial Pumpkin Stout and a Coffee-Infused Pumpkin Stout, which is pretty impressive as far as selections go, however we didn’t see those available locally, so we just tried their Pumpkin Stout.  This beer had a nice head, a good aroma of roasted malts and spiced.  We found that the pumpkin flavor was most apparent in the aftertaste, which was pleasant.  It has a 7% ABV rating and Beer Advocate rates it as B.  For something a little different, and for those that like stouts, we’d highly recommend this one.

Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale was up next.  Dogfish Head has gained quite a reputation for their very unique and distinctive style of brewing, and in a way they have really helped usher in the surge of popularity of these distinct craft beers.  Their motto is “Off Centered Ale for Off Centered People.”  Beer Advocate rates this 7% ABV beer a B+ and notes  that it is “a full-bodied brown ale brewed with real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg.”  We noted that it had a good amber color, a great spice aroma, a nice head, and a very well balanced flavor (which is trickier than you would think to achieve!).  We highly recommend this one for people to try, it is good.

Next on our tasting list was Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale.  This beer has an ABV of 8% and a B+ rating from Beer Advocate.  It boasts a sweet and spicy aroma along with a complex flavor.  There is lots of pumpkin spice present in both the aroma and the taste.  This is definitely one very, very good pumpkin beer.  If you’re ready to step up and try an Imperial, you have to try this.

Heavy Seas’ The Greater Pumpkin, an Imperial Pumpkin Ale aged in Bourbon Barrels had the honor of being next on our list.  This big beer has a 9% ABV rating and gets a B+ from Beer Advocate.  It boasts a delicious pumpkin pie spice aroma, with the oak and bourbon notes coming out more as the beer warms to room temperature.  Those same notes are present in the taste, though not overwhelming.  Again, a wonderful balance has been achieved.    This is a really, really wonderful beer.  It is part of the Mutiny Fleet of beers, and if you get the chance to try it, you should.  Be aware though, this is for the serious beer lovers, it is not for the faint of heart.

Heavy Seas also has The Great Pumpkin beer.  With an 8% ABV rating this one is only slightly smaller than its big brother.  It has a sweet pumpkin aroma and a good color.  We picked up something a little off in the tasting, it was a little astringent, but since Beer Advocate rates this as a B+ we’re thinking that, again, it might’ve just been an off-batch.  It also was also hard for this one to follow The Greater Pumpkin. 

One we had really been looking forward to was Pumking by Southern Tier.  This happens to be one of our favorite breweries simply for their Crème Brulee beer and their Mokah beer, both of which are absolutely delicious and, especially if you’re a female, we highly recommend them.  Southern Tier had their Mokah beer at this year’s Microfestivus and, from the rate at which it ran out, it was obviously a favorite.  Pumpking was lighter in color than a lot of the pumpkin beers we sampled.  It had an intense aroma of nutmeg and was sweet to the taste.  It was very good.  It has an 8.6% ABV and received an A- rating from Beer Advocate.  Quite impressive.

Ichabod Ale from New Holland Brewing was next.  They also have an Imperial Ichabod Ale, but alas this was another one we didn’t spot locally.  It has a 5.5% ABV and rates in with a B- on Beer Advocate.  We noticed that it had a good amber color and a nice pumpkin pie aroma.  The taste was fairly good, with a good spice combo present that wasn’t overpowering.  We did think it could’ve perhaps used a little bit more malt presence, but this was still another good beer.

Now, normally when you think of pumpkin beers you don’t think of frogs.  However, you’d be remiss if you missed out on Frog’s Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale brewed by Hoppin’ Frog.  This 8.4% ABV beer boasted a heavy nutmeg and clove aroma.  It had a good amber color, but poured a small head that faded fast.  The flavor was sweet and not overly spiced.  It scored a B+ rating from Beer Advocate.  If you like a sweeter beer, this is one you definitely should try.

Our final beer for the tasting series was Smashed Pumpkin by Shipyard Brewing Company, part of their “Pugsley’s Signature Series.”  It has a 9% ABV rating and scored a B on Beer Advocate.  This one was lighter in color than most of the others, more of a golden copper color.  We didn’t detect much spice aroma though we did detect hops, though it wasn’t “hoppy.”  The flavor was that of subtle spiciness, with more hop flavor than pumpkin or spice flavors.  Still, it was a good and decent beer.

As you can see, it’s hard to go wrong with pumpkin beers.  There are bigger and bolder ones, and then there are ones that are mellower and laid back.  Neither is wrong, as beer is all about personal preference and what your taste buds prefer.  We’re lucky to have such a wide selection available, and we highly recommend that you take the chance to try out a couple and see what you think before they’re gone for the year.

For more information about beer styles you can visit www.bjcp.org.  For more information about particular beers we recommend you check out www.beeradvocate.com.  We are also now lucky enough to have a wide selection of apps available for phones that will help you navigate the selection.  Of course, sometimes the best path is simply to visit your local beer store and ask the clerks what they think and recommend.  These stores pride themselves on their knowledgeable staff, and they are sure to help you find what is right for you.

Story by Carrie E. Cox