It's Never Too Soon For Pumpkin Beer

Early last month, I was perusing Portland, Maine's finest beer shop RSVP Liquors when a display of locally crafted Shipyard ales made me do a double take. "It's too soon!" I exclaimed, causing a nearby cashier to cock her eyebrow. "What's Pumpkinhead Ale doing out in early August?"

One of Shipyard's top-selling seasonal beers has long been Pumpkinhead. It's a crisp wheat ale flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and plenty of the namesake vegetable. Pumpkinhead will always be linked with fall—to celebrate the exchange of swimsuits for sweatshirts. But the beer's surging popularity has meant that it's now available from summer to winter. "We usually stop brewing Pumpkinhead around Halloween," says Shipyard master brewer Alan Pugsley. "This year, we began brewing it a bit earlier and will end after Thanksgiving."

For purists who pray at the altar of seasonality, this may seem like heresy. I call it a return to form. In colonial America, brewing grains were in short supply. Thus, intrepid beer makers turned to other readily available fermentable substances, such as pumpkin. Over time, as Americans began to cultivate barley, the use of pumpkins in brewing beer faded. But in recent years, brewers have rediscovered the gourd, spurring the birth (or perhaps rebirth) of a singular, thoroughly American fall delight: pumpkin beer.

Stylistically speaking, these beers inhabit a broad flavor spectrum. Some pumpkin brews are pie-sweet, spiced with clove, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon, while others trade sweetness for a bitter streak. Stouts, saisons, even sours—name the style, and you can likely use pumpkin. Here are five to try this fall. Or winter or next summer too.

  1. Southern Tier Brewing Company Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale

The New York brewery tosses in tons of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg into Pumking, which drinks like boozy, liquefied pumpkin pie. In fact, it's so sweet that you might just want to serve it for dessert.

  • Shipyard Brewing Smashed Pumpkin
  • Pumpkinhead's charged-up big brother smells of fresh-from-the-oven pumpkin pie, with nice notes of baking spices and a bit of booze too. It drinks lightly sweet, spicy and luscious, presenting a surprising amount of bitterness.

  • Elysian Brewing Company Dark o' the Moon
  • One of several pumpkin-based offerings from the Seattle brewery, Dark is a full-bodied stout made with roasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin flesh and cinnamon. The result is a creamy, chocolaty indulgence with a long, roasty finish.

  • Hoppin' Frog Brewery Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale
  • The Akron, Ohio–based brewery's orange-tinted ale smells strongly of cloves, nutmeg and meaty pumpkin. Despite the burly, 8.4 percent ABV, the well-carbonated beer slides smooth and keeps the sweetness in check.

  • Cape Ann Brewing Company: Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout
  • This strong, 7-percent stout is brewed with heaps of pumpkin flesh, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Instead of smelling like grandma's potpourri dish, these spices remain subtle accents and never overwhelm the rich, silky creation.

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