Though you may have seen pumpkin beers on shelves as early as July, October is really the time to drink them. The weather cools, spices compliment hearty fall foods and, in some parts of the country, farmers are actually harvesting pumpkins. Now before you type a snippy “pumpkin beers suck!” comment on this post, remember two things: 1. These spiced seasonal brews come around but once a year and 2. No one’s forcing you to buy them. Go pick up a six pack of a brown ale or Oktoberfest märzen instead if you’re not a fan.
For those who do enjoy the annual return of the spiced autumn brew, we tasted dozens and dozens of this year’s releases to pick our favorites. Pumpkins being an agricultural product, the quality of the crop can vary from year to year, as can brewers’ recipes and exact blend of spices. And while not all “pumpkin beers” are, in fact, brewed with real pumpkins (some use puree, others are just spiced autumn ales), we’re going to consider them all pumpkin beers because their spices are meant to evoke pumpkin pie flavors. To get technical, the revised 2015 BJCP guidelines lump pumpkin beers under the category of “Autumn Seasonal Beer,” so while many do contain pumpkins, that’s not required: “Spices are required, and often include those evocative of the fall or Thanksgiving season … Flavorful adjuncts are often used (e.g., molasses,brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc.). Squash-type or gourd-type vegetables (most frequently pumpkin) are often used.”
Everyone on board? Here are the 17 we most enjoyed. If we’re missing your favorite, tell us about it in the comments.
Avery Rumpkin: Even a quick sniff of this 18% ABV (!) rum-barrel aged pumpkin ale yields a wealth of aromas: fresh-carved pumpkin flesh, spiced rum and a caramelized, creme brulee-ish vanilla richness. The sip is like sweet maple syrup and brown sugar—seriously, we wish we could pour this on our pancakes—with just enough rum warmth to flush our cheeks.
Almanac Farm to Barrel Pumpkin Sour: If you dislike pumpkin beers but feel compelled to bring one to a fall-themed party, find this beer. It’s aged in wine and bourbon barrels and is actually nothing like a traditional pumpkin ale: pumpkin and spice are nearly undetectable underneath cabernetlike tartness and lightly oaky bourbon barrel flavor. This sour is really something like a Flanders red masquerading as a pumpkin beer, a welcome break from the ubiquitous spiced amber ale.
Heavy Seas The Greater Pumpkin: Another boozed-up pumpkin offering, The Greater Pumpkin is aged in bourbon barrels which yield a surprisingly light aroma of cinnamon and pumpkin pie crust. The sip hides its 10% ABV well in a cloak of vanilla, cinnamon and pumpkin flesh.
Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale: Boston Beer Co. brews multiple Samuel Adams pumpkin beers, including Double Jack and Pumpkin Batch, but we liked the easy-drinking Harvest Pumpkin Ale version for its nutty, toffee malt background that supports moderate pumpkin flesh, nutmeg, allspice and vanilla flavors that don’t become cloying, even after a multiple sips.
Lakefront Imperial Pumpkin: Brandy barrel-aging adds some prickly, sweet alcohol that nips at the edges of this 9.5% brew; if the beer style “autumn warmer” existed, this would define it. The brandy barrel’s notes of candied pome fruits harmonize well with the malts’ toffee richness, augmented by brown sugar and cinnamon. Sip slowly.
Iron Hill Pumpkin Ale: In 16-ounce cans for the first time, this beer is the real deal: it’s brewed with whole, roasted and pureed pumpkins (about 3.5-4 lbs. per barrel). Take it on your hayride or autumn picnic; there’s plenty of pumpkin pie spices and cinnamon, but strong malt breadiness gives it a good base while a perfect level of carbonation whisks away the intense spice.
Denver Beer Co. Hey! Pumpkin: This copper-colored ale smells and tastes like a Snickerdoodle or a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch; the malts read as lightly toasted cereal with plenty of brown sugar and cinnamon spice. Earthy hops add a pinch of bitterness at the finish, which helps temper the swallow’s sweetness.
Hardywood Reserve Series Farmhouse Pumpkin: Brewers use gourds from nearby Grandma’s Pumpkins in Richmond, Virginia, to flavor this Wallonian-style farmhouse ale (also known as a saison). A saison’s characteristic tartness leads the way, but molasses, unsweet cinnamon and some rye spice (base malts include barley, rye and oat) sweep in to dial up the autumnal factor. This beer is a great way to extend warm-weather saisons into the fall.
Brewery Vivant Pumpkin Tart: There’s a Belgian twang to this pumpkin ale; saison yeast contributes apricot and peach flavors as well as spicy black pepper that synchs up with traditional autumn spices like cardamom, clove, allspice and nutmeg. Spices are complex and harmonious, and overall, this is a fresh, Euro-leaning spin on the style.
Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Harvest Ale: This butterscotchy pumpkin ale is brewed with roasted sugar pie pumpkins as well as pumpkin spice (look for an imperial version as well). It’s authentically gourd-tasting, with caramel and toffee notes but not as much spice as other beers we tried. Its real, near vegetal pumpkin flavor would pair wonderfully with Thanksgiving turkey.
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale: Deep toasted bread crust malts lead the charge on this perennial favorite pumpkin beer, segueing to nutmeg, brown sugar and caraway seed spice that gives the impression of sweet rye bread. Despite that toasty melanoidin flavor, the sip finishes sweet-spicy.
Nebraska Wick For Brains Pumpkin Ale: There’s an almost chai or ciderlike aroma to this amber ale brewed with real pumpkins, but the sip is thoroughly pumpkin, with subdued spices that allow the gourd character to shine. Surprisingly, it’s not overly vegetal, just pure pumpkin flavor and complex vanilla and cardamom roundness. Unlike some other pumpkin beers, it finishes dry and earthy.
Starr Hill Boxcar Pumpkin Porter: Yes, there are dark pumpkin beers for the porter lovers out there. This one opens with a neat aroma that’s chocolately, darkly roasted and woody, with vanilla and cinnamon flying through the dark malt; the sip is more baking chocolate, light smoke and quiet pumpkin pie spices. Darker beer fans, this is a good bet.
Dry Dock Imperial Pumpkin Ale: Herbal and spicy, this supercharged pumpkin beer is not for the faint of heart. Big allspice, clove and ginger wash across the sip, with vanilla creamer sweetness pooling in the center. It’s reminiscent of a cocktail, with brandy and ginger sweetness that sticks on the lips; share the bottle with an equally spice-loving friend.
Coronado Barrel Aged Punk’in Drublic: We preferred this brandy barrel-aged version of Punk’in Drublic to its regular sibling; grapelike brandy notes blanket the oak- and vanilla-studded sip before it wraps up with smooth plum-laced notes that linger after the swallow. It’s complex and warmly spiced; drink this slowly on a couch with a fireplace.
Elysian Punkuccino: Elysian is pumpkin beer royalty, not only for hosting the Great Pumpkin Beer Fest 11 years running, but for releasing a slew of spiced gourd beers each year that rank among our favorites. Punkuccino is a treat for coffee beer lovers; Stumptown’s coldbrew coffee added to the batch yields those roasty bean flavors, plus a harmonious dose of cinnamon and earthy pumpkin. Despite the coffee, the beer finishes creamer-sweet with cinnamon sugar at the edges.
St. Arnold Bourbon Barrel Imperial Pumpkin: This is a sipper…you’ll probably want a hip flask, not a snifter, for this bad boy. Bourbon spice starts the sip, with vanilla and orange zest, too, plus dark caramelized brown sugar. Midway, it’s all about the interplay of bourbon and spices, while the base beer contributes dark fruit like plums, raisins and dark currant to the prickly swallow. It left our tongues tingling, in a great way.