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To Pumpkin or to Pumpkin Pie… That is the Question

Chrissy Cooper by Chrissy Cooper

In the United States, people have been brewing with pumpkins as early as 1771. The early settlers didn’t have much access to the barley malts and hops to make their beers, so they turned to the, now well known squash introduced to them by the natives to get the sugars necessary to ferment beer… Pumpkins. And though many people seem to think that the pumpkin spice “craze” started with a company known for its overdone and overpriced coffees, putting said spices into a latte… And everything thing else coffee-esque, but truly people have been going crazy over pumpkin spice for thousands of years. In fact, the Dutch were so crazy about the sought after and rare nutmeg in the late 1600s, that they traded the colony of New Amsterdam… later named New York, to Britain for the island of Pulau Run of the Banda Islands, which until the mid-19th century was the world’s only source of the spice nutmeg.

Though the orange squash of the more recent boom has been fermenting, malting, and mashing its way into microbrews long before it was a “craze”, now it gets lumped in with everything else pumpkin. “Pumpkin Spice” is now a season, a symbol, a way of life, and a meme… okay… a lot of memes.

However, not all pumpkin beers have the spice in them though. In fact, in 2016, The Great American Beer Festival split their Pumpkin Beer category into two different classifications: Pumpkin/Squash beer with a focus on the pumpkin and squash aromas and Pumpkin Spice Beer with all of the tasty spices that make many pumpkin beers taste more like pumpkin pie than beer. Some of the beers that taste like pumpkin pie don’t have pumpkin in them at all. Brewers sometimes use the aggressive pumpkin pie spices to hint at the flavor without actually putting any pumpkin into their beers.

The following pumpkin beers and cider mostly fall into the more popular category of Pumpkin Spice Beer, because while I think pumpkins are cute and cheerful looking squash, the taste of them on their own doesn’t really inspire me and I have found that I really prefer the pumpkin spices even in those beers and ciders that only use the spices to create the taste of pumpkin pie.

Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin

New Belgium Brewing Company; Fort Collins, CO
Pumpkin/Yam Beer | 6.4% ABV | 10 IBUs

While perusing my local Total Wine & More for new, interesting, and unique beers, I found myself chatting with couple about pumpkin beers and they asked if I had ever tried Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin beer and they pointed it out to me. I had never tried it before and after we said our “cheers and good evenings” and they headed off with a six pack of one of my favorites, I decided to take a closer look… Not only does the Atomic Pumpkin have… you guessed it… pumpkin in it, it also has habanero chilli peppers and saigon cinnamon. I love pumpkin beer and I love spicy beer so this beer sounded like the best of both worlds and I took home a six-pack home to try. After my first sip the first thought that popped into my head was, “That’s not all that spicy…” and then at the very end of the sip the “Atomic” hit my taste buds. I will say that though it has a bite at the end, it is the kind of bite that doesn’t linger, unlike so many other things habanero. They use a lot of sweet pumpkin pie kind of flavors to help balance the oh so spicy ending. So if you like the taste of pumpkin pie, but you also want a quick slap to the face than New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin is just what you might be looking for.

Ace Pumpkin Cider

Ace Cider; Sebastopol, CA
Traditional Cider | 5% ABV | No IBUs 

I have seen Ace Pumpkin Cider before, but as I tend to stay away from ciders, I had yet to try it, but I like pumpkin and I am willing to try any beer with them in it… so why not a cider. As the bottle says, Ace Pumpkin is a limited release available after Labor Day and through the Fall… and it is good enough to binge for as long as you can find it. Here in the greater Portland and Vancouver area it is available at many places including many grocery stores. It definitely falls more in the spiced pumpkin pie, but after all it is a cider, so that it is not that unexpected. There is a heavy emphasis on the spices and just a hint of the fresh pumpkin juice added before fermentation. The taste at the beginning is very light and refreshing, but the ending is the real prize. There is a nice blend of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg in the middle of each sip… very pumpkin pie like, but at the end  there are cloves and I am guessing they used a great deal of cloves in the fermentation. So while this cider starts out light and mild it leads you to a bite of clove that ends the cider a little edginess and just slightly on the dry side as far as ciders go.

Pumpkin Patch Ale

Rogue Ales; Newport, OR
Pumpkin/Yam Beer | 6.1% ABV | 25 IBUs

This beer starts out this year around June, as an acre of Dream pumpkin seeds planted by hand into the dirt at Rogue Farms in Independence, OR. Rogue Farms got its start during the during the global hop shortage of 2007. They started growing their own hops and their farms have continued to grow from there in a huge way. They now grow 10 varieties of hops, pumpkins, marionberries, cucumbers and garden botanicals on their 52 acre total farmland. As soon as the pumpkins are picked that are trucked the 77 miles to Rogue’s Brewing facility in Newport, OR where they are, in the same way that they started out, are processed by hand. Rogue has been winning international awards for this pumpkin beer every year since 2015 and I am sure that 2019’s Pumpkin Patch Ale will continue that tradition. The pumpkin patch definitely has the most actual pumpkin flavor of all of the ones I reviewed. It starts with a medium and just slightly sweet and spicy taste… When I say spicy you should know it is very subtle, especially if you try either of the other beers or any other pumpkin pie-esque beer first. It ends on the dry and almost, but not quite hoppy side, but even given my aversion to anything that tastes like it might have any hops in it (which it really doesn’t) it still was an overall good balance of taste to me. The squashy taste with just a hint of spice balances out the dryness making it a really great pumpkin beer for someone that is looking for something that isn’t nearly as sweet as most other pumpkin beers that I have tried.

Though there are many pumpkin beers on the market, don’t assume that all pumpkin beers are created equal. They are all very different because of the diverse ingredients and emphasises that can affect the beginning, middle, and end flavors of each sip. I usually find that if I discover a flavor that tastes good… to me… when it comes to beer,  then I generally like all beers with that ingredient, at least on some flavor level. Pumpkin is one of those flavors for me. I love tasting what pumpkin or pumpkin spice means to each different brewery. Most grocery stores stock a couple of the more well known and distributed pumpkin beers and ciders, but I recommended searching your favorite bottle shop to find some of the lesser known pumpkin brews, because I have found that those ones are often just as good or even better than some of the more mass produced ones. However, year to year and batch to batch beer can change, beer recipes can change… sometimes intentionally and sometimes just because of ingredient quantities, when the ingredients are added, whose brewing it, temperature difference etc., Just because you have tried a beer and liked it or even disliked it doesn’t mean that the next year’s batch might be more or less to your liking.

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