Not even half of the pumpkin beers available in Chicago
  • Julia Thiel
  • Not even half of the pumpkin beers available in Chicago

A few years ago, a brewer told me that making beer with pumpkin doesn’t actually impart pumpkin flavor to the beer; what you’re tasting in most pumpkin beers are the spices. I’m not a big fan of pumpkin beer, so I didn’t think much about it until recently, when I ended up with as assortment of pumpkin beers in my fridge and decided to taste them side by side (more on that later). I started doing research, and learned that some pumpkin beers aren’t even brewed with pumpkin and are really just spiced beers. Whether or not brewing with pumpkin adds a distinct flavor is the subject of ongoing debate; some brewers argue that it does, some that it doesn’t.

In any case, pumpkins were originally used in brewing not for their flavor, but because they were plentiful and contain a lot of fermentable sugars. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, pumpkin ale was invented in the 18th century by English colonists who used pumpkin juice as a substitute for cereal malts (which made it more of a wine than a beer). Modern recipes include malt, and while some use pumpkin juice, others incorporate raw or roasted pumpkin or canned pumpkin puree. Virtually all of them are made with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves, which contribute flavors we associate with pumpkin—or at least pumpkin pie.

I’ve always thought of pumpkin beers as oversweetened, so I was surprised that almost none of the ones I tasted were. (I should note that this is by no means a comprehensive tasting; there are at least a couple dozen pumpkin beers available in Chicago, and I didn’t attempt to track them all down.) The ones I liked least were thin and weak-tasting, with little flavor; my favorites were also the sweetest, but none of them were cloying. Below is a list of what I tried, in order from least favorite to favorite, with brief notes on each.

Jack-o-Traveler Shandy: To be fair, I should note that I didn’t try this one with the others. I was mailed a sample bottle, made fun of it on Twitter, and then put it on my desk and forgot about it until I was tasting the other pumpkin beers and realized that maybe I should try it. It’s not as bad as I expected it to be—though that’s not saying much (I tried their Curious Traveler a few months ago and thought it was disgusting). It’s got a pretty good pumpkin flavor that works with the lemon peel, but the finish is a little too sweet and the aftertaste is of artificial flavoring.

Wild Onion Pumpkin Ale: This was the only beer of the bunch that didn’t say it was brewed with actual pumpkin (in some form). I have no idea if that’s why my informal tasting panel didn’t like it, but it just didn’t have much taste. It’s light and lightly spiced; I got a little cinnamon and not much else.

New Belgium Pumpkick: Brewed with pumpkin juice, cranberry juice, and spices, this is a toned-down version of a sour beer that New Belgium introduced last year as part of their Lips of Faith series. I should note that I’m still learning to like sour beer—though this isn’t exactly a sour beer, it has very tart notes and only a very light spice. It wasn’t on my list of favorites, but that might just be personal preference.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale: This is another one where I think that my preference may differ from the average drinker’s. All I could taste was clove, with a faint bitter aftertaste—and I don’t like clove. But my two friends both liked this one, and I usually love beers from Smuttynose, so I’m guessing this is a good beer that wasn’t to my taste.

Lakefront Pumpkin Lager: The only pumpkin lager we tasted (nearly all pumpkin beers are ales) and as far as I know, the only one in existence. (Coincidentally, I tried a pumpkin spirit distilled from Lakefront’s pumpkin beer last week.) I liked this beer quite a bit, but next to the fuller-flavored ones, it ended up seeming sort of uninteresting. If I’m going to drink pumpkin beer, I figure I might as well go all out and have it really taste like pumpkin. That said, I’d definitely buy this again.

Big Muddy Pumpkin Smasher: Fuller-bodied than the first few (with the exception of Smuttynose), this had a warm, full spice flavor and a subtle sweetness. It fell right in the middle of the spectrum, with more sweetness, spice, and body than the first few but less than the Pumking and Whole Hog.

Southern Tier Pumking: It was a toss-up between Pumking and Whole Hog for our favorite of the bunch. They’re both rich-tasting, heavily spiced, and mildly sweet. Pumking is one of the few pumpkin beers I’ve had before, and I’ve always liked the spicy aroma and flavors of pumpkin and cinnamon. (I read a few other pumpkin beer round-ups and was surprised to see that this is a divisive beer; a couple reviewers placed in near the bottom of their lists of favorites.)

Point Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale: This beer tastes exactly like pumpkin pie, rich and creamy, with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and graham cracker. It’s sweeter, darker, and more spiced than the Pumking, definitely a dessert beer. I wouldn’t want it every day, but was pretty impressed by it.

Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.