Holder of a three year hit streak.

I don’t get all giddy about seasonal beer releases like some people. I appreciate some seasonals and make a casual effort to try some products every year (RJ Rockers Son of a Peach, Southern Tier Choklat, Tröegs Nugget Nectar, and The Bruery’s holiday release to name a few), but I don’t get frothy in anticipation of anything. The one seasonal category that has been the most polarizing for many and most inconsistent in my view is Fall pumpkin beers. There is a glut of production—just about every US brewery makes one or, at least one (or thirteen)—and they range from a small number of exceptionally good to mostly uninspired to several downright horrible. When done right, a pumpkin beer can be magical. It’s just that it is so rarely done right.

The primary problem with pumpkin beers is that they typically lack any hint of, you know…pumpkin. Most are flat amber ales with little to no character at all, or spice bombs laden with so much cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove that they’re like licking a spilled Yuengling lager off of a bakery’s spice rack. But where’s the pumpkin? The issue for most brewers is that, like any fruited beer, it requires a ridiculous amount of pumpkin to flavor a beer. This is a huge cost-benefit concern going in and, generally speaking, the pumpkin seems to get cut back before brewing even begins. Note to brewers: if the cost of pumpkin is too prohibitive to effectively impart its flavor into your beer while keeping the shelf price attractive, please don’t make the beer. Make another fall seasonal style that you can control more effectively and try wow us beer geeks with something new, fresh, and, most importantly, well executed.

Another issue is providing enough malt backbone to support the strong flavors of the spice while helping lift the delicate pumpkin flavors. This is critical to me but, apparently, not to many breweries. If you are going to attempt to use sacks of spice in a beer, that beer sure as heck better have enough malt body to at least round out the edges. Too many pumpkin beers are light and over-carbonated which only heightens the bitterness aspect of baking spices. The bitterness from cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove is not the same as those from Chinook, Warrior, Saaz, or Simcoe hops. I have tasted so many pumpkin beers that reveal an attempt to use the hard-edged, burnt flavors of these spices as IBU builders. But they just don’t work the same way and taste terrible when used in excess. Balance.

One beer that gets this right is Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale. While there are flavor and density variations from year-to-year, this is one of the most qualitatively consistent pumpkin beers in production. What is surprising is that this is accomplished with one of the “biggest” pumpkin beers produced (generally, very rich, full-flavored, and not alcohol-shy). I rank this up there with Southern Tier’s Pumpking and Cape Ann’s Fisherman’s Brew Imperial Pumpkin Stout as the most rewarding pumpkin beers every year (of those available in the state of Maryland).

2012 Schalfly Pumpkin Ale
Dark amber in color with a visibly creamy body and minimal head upon pour. The clove and nutmeg are aggressive on the nose to the point of almost scaring me away (but I know better). This is where it gets good: the front-palate is sweet and spicy with caramel, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove building to a crescendo on the mid-palate. Then the sweet malts take over allowing the pumpkin—yes, actual freaking pumpkin—flavors to rise through the very delicately bittered back-palate. The mouthfeel on the whole is a kind of creamy/chewy that is evocative of pumpkin pie filling. The richness along with the 8% alcohol make this a  one-and-done 12 oz. pour, but, it is an extremely pleasurable one worthy of a long session of savoring.