It’s Pumpkin-Beer Season. Long Live Pumpkin Beer.
Once thought to be annoyingly trite, pumpkin beer has come into its own in recent years. Here are eight of our favorites.
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Ah, fall: a chill in the air, decorative gourds on your porch, and pumpkin in your beer. For some of us, the arrival of pumpkin beers, which are brewed with the fruit’s flesh and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, has become as synonymous with the season as changing leaves. Nobody knows this better than the folks at Elysian Brewing—in 1997, the Seattle-based company brewed Night Owl, one of the first pumpkin beers available on the market. “We learned that, when the founding fathers ran out of barley, they used gourds to make a rudimentary beer,” says Joe Bisacca, co-founder of Elysian Brewing. “I thought it would be fun to do a pumpkin beer for Halloween; we’d do one batch and forget it, but it took off. People jumped on it like crazy.”
More than 25 years later, the pumpkin beer category has become a mainstay in craft brewing. Every fall, breweries release pumpkin spice latte ales, imperial pumpkin stouts, pumpkin brown ales, and pumpkin IPAs. Bisacca has had a front-row seat to market-wide pumpkin beer trends—every year, Elysian throws a pumpkin beer festival, where Bisacca features as many gourd-flavored brews as possible; he says the exact number of beers fluctuates each festival, in correlation with the style’s popularity with brewers. This year, there were almost 100 different pumpkin beers. “There are periods with a shitload of pumpkin beers, and then periods when nobody wants to make one. It waxes and wanes,” Bisacca says. “For whatever reason, we’re in a waxing phase right now. A lot of people are interested in pumpkin beers again.”
As the category has grown, some of the beers have become downright cartoonish, overloaded with sugar and spice, to the point that you feel like you’re drinking a glass of pumpkin pie. “As brewers, we tend to go off the rails with adjunct loads and it’s easy to overdo pumpkin beers,” Bisacca says. “From a drinking perspective, it’s also easy to experience palate burnout on these beers.”
Still, with every over-the-top brew, there’s a more balanced approach to the seasonal beverage. To celebrate, here are eight of our favorite pumpkin beers, from annual staples released by large breweries to hard-to-find small batch offerings from darling craft shops. Together they represent a broad spectrum of takes on the seasonal style.
New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin
Atomic Pumpkin fits in well with New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger series of off-camber releases. It’s a bit out there, even by pumpkin beer standards—instead of the typical pumpkin pie spices, New Belgium uses cinnamon and habanero peppers to add a kick to this pumpkin ale. The result is a mild pumpkin beer with noticeable heat on the back end. 6.4% ABV.
Cigar City Brewing Good Gourd
Cigar City throws everything into this ale, using cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and vanilla to deliver the pumpkin pie profile. And it works. It’s definitely on the sweet side of things and has a relatively high ABV, so we can’t see drinking more than one or two Good Gourds at a time. But if you’re craving a pumpkin beer that nails the center of the style, this is it. 8.8% ABV.
Dogfish Punkin Ale
One of the OG pumpkin beers on the market, Punkin is far more restrained than other pumpkin beers that have come after it—it’s more of a straight-forward brown ale with just a hint of earthy vegetable aspect and brown sugar. Don’t go looking for a dessert beer here. 7% ABV.
Left Hand Brewing Pumpkin Spice Latte Nitro
Left Hand Brewing is famous for its Milk Stout Nitro, a canned beer with an embedded widget that releases tiny nitrogen bubbles into the beer, giving it a silky smooth texture. This fall, Left Hand brought that Nitro tech to this pumpkin beer, which incorporates cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and coffee into an ale. The result is creamy—and dangerously easy to drink. 7% ABV
Elysian Brewing Night Owl
On paper, Night Owl looks a lot like most other pumpkin beers: Elysian uses pumpkin puree and pumpkin juice as well as the requisite cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice when brewing the ale. But the result is more subtle than sweet, with a lightly roasted pumpkin element underscoring this incredibly easy-drinking drink. It’s earthy, with a bit of cinnamon, and is the most sessionable beer on this list. 6.7% ABV
Prairie Artisan Ales Pumpkin Pie Treat
Like pumpkin beers, breweries can get carried away with sour beers, delivering more pucker than is necessary. But Oklahoma-based Prairie Artisan Ales knows rarely misses, whether they’re brewing crisp farmhouse ales or dense barrel-aged stouts. Pumpkin Pie Treat is a winner—a sour ale that’s more refreshing than puckering, with pumpkin pie spice used to counter the sour notes for a balanced drink that leaves you wanting more. 5.5% ABV.
Elysian Brewing Punkuccino
Punkuccino is a step deeper into the pumpkin category for Elysian, with more noticeable pumpkin pie spices in play—but they are still reined in and mellowed with the use of Stumptown cold brew coffee and lactose. In the end, the coffee ale tastes less like a pumpkin beer and more like a holiday-spiced beverage. And we’re OK with that. 6% ABV.
Abomination Brewing Forbidden Pumpkin
The Connecticut-based Abomination makes some of the most sought-after IPAs in the craft beer world, and Forbidden Pumpkin should be on that must-drink list. This is an imperial milkshake-style IPA, which is a hazy IPA brewed with milk sugar (lactose) for a smooth and creamy beer that pours cloudy. The inclusion of pumpkin adds some intriguing earthy undertones that help balance the bitterness of the hop—but you won’t find much pumpkin pie spice here. In other words, this is just a great IPA that happens to have pumpkin in it. 9.3% ABV