Got Beer? What’s Round and Orange and in Every. Single. Thing?

We find ourselves in that season once again where a single overly hyped flavor dominates every single possible food that can have flavors added: Pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin roast beef, pumpkin potato chips, pumpkin Mountain Dew. That last one was a joke, but god help me, I’m sure there’s an executive somewhere writing a memo on launching that particular product line, and it probably goes something like “The invasion is nearly complete, Overlord. Victory is near!”

And of course, like the fool that I am, I specialize in a world that embraced the pumpkin spice movement early and hasn’t gotten off that bandwagon to even take a pee break. So here we are, yet again, reviewing this years crop of gourd-based beers. Regular readers will recall my disdain for these abominations against craft beer, and hopefully, the rest of you will appreciate the sacrifice I’m making in tasting these things to better prepare the ignorant public for the ravages of our Jack O’Lantern Overlords.

Southern Tier Imperial Pumking – I recall a time when Southern Tier brewing made some damned fine beverages, and even their seasonal offering infused with the damned vegetable matter was at least a passable thing. Those days appear to be over. This amber brew carries a slight orange tint, which is worrying enough as the label makes some empty proclamations like “Brewed with 2 types of Malts! And 2 types of hops!” Whoa there, slow down! I don’t think my tongue can handle that kind of extreme flavor. I’m lying. I know it can’t. The aroma is spice-first and nothing else. The first sip is nothing but bitter spices and hot alcohol flavors with an extremely elusive buttery sweetness in between trying to balance the bitter and hot like a waiter at a restaurant juggling two giant stacks of plates in a Charlie Chaplin movie. The body is nowhere near enough to carry the weight of this brew. Southern Tier, I like you, and I know you can do better than this. What happened? Who hurt you?

Shipyard Pumpkinhead – Ah, yes. The undisputed commercial king of pumpkin and spice beer. Loathe as I am to sample this after so many years of palate abuse, I actually was pleasantly surprised. The nose was a perfect balance of spice and sweet brown-sugar maltiness. Strong notes of clove and nutmeg come forward and are balanced by a body that, unlike previous years, is not a resiny pitch of cloying sweetness. Quite the opposite, this beer has truly improved since the last time I tried it. Otherwise I’m going completely insane and require instant institutionalization.

DFH Punkin Ale – Ah, Dogfish Head. I have nothing but pure respect for a brewery that does as much experimentation as DFH, especially since they’ve been playing around with lambics since before that was cool. Their pumpkin beer has always left me a bit cold, though, as most pumpkin beers do. But since I’ve received two shocking surprises so far, perhaps this one will also toss my expectations into the nearest lake. The aroma is slight, with a hint of sweetness, but absolutely no spice. For something brewed with brown sugar, pumpkin, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, you would think there would be a bigger nose on it. All of that was reserved for the flavor, which was a great big wet smack in the mouth of cloying sweetness followed by the spices surfing along on the tsunami and a hot aftertaste that seems to simmer the spices on the end. A few sips in and it’s accumulating at the back of my throat. I will always respect Dogfish Head, but I’m sorry, this is not my slice of pie.

Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale – I’m going to come out and say it. I’m not a big fan of the normal Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. I find it to be a bit too syrupy thick for what it is without the character and complexity to make it work. All that and a high ABV that shamelessly sweeps your tongue dry. However, in true spirit, once I lift off that mask, I’m surprised by what’s underneath. The aroma is light and fruity, completely flying in the face of everything I expect. It pours an amber-red, and unlike the others in this experiment, actually smells very appealing. The flavor is a distinct and bold one, but with a surprising complexity that knocks me for a loop. There’s little to no spice, but maybe it’s hiding with the alcohol flavor on the end. There’s a strange sweet nutty flavor that seems to bind together what would be some very disparate flavors. The label claims it’s made with wheat and pecan. Pecan?! Why … that’s pretty brilliant. That’s the perfect glue to keep this flavor profile together, forming a nice transition between beer, to pumpkin, to bourbon, to a little heat on the finish. Even the heated finish works because it isn’t flanking your taste buds and providing suppressing fire while spices invade. Rather, it plays smooth jazz and invites the pecan over for a shoulder massage. This brew has truly impressed me more than I expected.

So, wait … that’s two pumpkin beers that I actually liked? Either this is the sign that craft beer is finally evolving to the point where even the gimmicky beers are more well-planned and lovingly executed, or the four horsemen just mounted and we can expect some heavy-metal-album-cover weather in the near future.

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