By Michael Nagrant
There’s something about the burnished hues of fall and the crisp smoky air that signals a coming of age for the earth and channels a separate peace within me that none of the other seasons accomplish. A season of refuge, it’s the first opportunity to hunker down against the razor chafe of Chicago’s winds. No longer celebrating the freshness of spring or luxuriating in the summer sun, I urgently seek warmth and sustenance in hearty braises like winy rosemary-perfumed pot roast or chocolate-dusted short ribs.
Then there’s the football and beer. I grew up in Detroit, where the Lions’ failure surpasses J. Lo and Elizabeth Taylor’s marital difficulties combined. Like a hapless Richard Burton or an unsuspecting Ben Affleck, I always line up hopeful, but by mid-September, the reality of another losing season is upon me. The brutality requires a special salve. Beer, lots of it. I prefer my brews like my eats, seasonal, and the malt beverage of choice is pumpkin beer. Having sampled only a couple of these pumpkin brews, I was curious about the best.
According to the Beer Advocate, there are 115 different pumpkin beers where “brewers opt to add hand-cut pumpkins and drop them in the mash, while others use puree or pumpkin flavoring. These beers also tend to be spiced with pumpkin pie spices, like: ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice.”
While I come from the Jeffrey Steingarten school of food exploration (the legendary Vogue magazine food writer is a boundless investigator, prone to cooking up hundreds of batches of potatoes in various lipids in search of the perfect French fry–Belgian Horse fat is best), my budget only allowed for a blind tasting of the five pumpkin brews available at Sam’s Wine and Spirits.
I compensated for the sample size by selecting a remarkably exhaustive tasting panel consisting of a pregnant woman (adhering to the European view of gestation), a beer aficionado, an avowed “beer hater” and a woman who prefers pinot grigio served with ice cubes. Our exploration follows, with the results listed from worst to best.
Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale (Coors Brewing Company)
This was the darkest of the beers, a deep shade of amber. Perhaps in a nod to its corporate lineage and economic efficiency, this was the only beer not brewed with pumpkin, but instead enhanced with “natural flavor.”
Pinot Grigio: Heavy, a man’s beer. I might order it to impress a guy. Pumpkin? Never would’ve known.
Pregnant woman: Extreme funkiness in odor and taste.
Beer hater: Tastes like every other foul beer I’ve had with a bad aftertaste.
Beer aficionado: No head. No pumpkin. Flat.
Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale (Pyramid Brewing Co.)
This caramel-colored liquid tasted more like a novelty soda. Although brewed with actual pumpkin, it tasted more naturally flavored than the Blue Moon.
Pint Grigio: Holy pumpkin, batman!
Pregnant woman: Festive, but a bit too sweet.
Beer hater: Too pumpkiny. Very strong cinnamon and nutmeg flavors.
Beer aficionado: Somebody just threw a pumpkin cream pie in my face.
Ichabod Pumpkin Ale (New Holland Brewing Company)
This Michigan microbrew had a decent structure, but little pumpkin taste, and recalled the color of urine after a few too many multivitamins.
Pinot Grigio: Bitter, yet tart. No pumpkin flavor.
Pregnant woman: Spicy, light and refreshing. Not too heavy.
Beer hater: Made me say mmm, but in a bad way.
Beer aficionado: Cinnamon and nutmeg, malted barley, nice bitter finish.
Punkin Ale (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)
A bronze full-bodied ale brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, with a hoppy bitter finish. Dogfish is one of the premier craft breweries in the country, and the beer aficionado expected this to be the best of lot. In a triumph of blind tasting, the beer aficionado rated it the worst of the five, while the beer hater rated it number one.
Pinot Grigio: Bitter, semi-heavy. Most ale-tasting. It’s making me full. Has the most foam. Very little pumpkin, but sweet brown sugar and cinnamon hint
Pregnant woman: Fishy taste. Skunky.
Beer hater: No bad aftertaste, nice strong finish.
Beer aficionado: Good foamy head, fruity beginning, but totally unbalanced. The bitter hoppy end washes out everything.
Pumpkin Ale (O’ Fallon Brewery)
This cloudy orange brew from St. Louis, channeled a wheat-style beer, similar to Goose Island 312 with a perfect amount of pumpkin, and spicy bursts of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
Pinot Grigio: Very spicy. Unique. Light. I could drink this all night.
Pregnant woman: Perfect spiciness and fruitiness.
Beer hater: Not too bad of an aftertaste. Yay.
Beer aficionado: Banana like esters. Almost like a wheat beer with a hint of apple. Balanced, with a perfect amount of pumpkin.