Six Local Pumpkin Beers That Don’t Suck
Without a doubt, pumpkin beers are the most polarizing beverage in the brewing kingdom. Craft breweries are so hard-pressed to keep up with demand that they’ve started pushing out product in the middle of summer. Yet beer nerds, and brewers themselves, often dismiss the entire category as frivolous and borderline abhorrent. One high-profile brewer admitted, off the record, that he “hates pumpkin beers.” Another compared them to blueberry ales and other unpalatable trends.
But what I’ve discovered is that despite its gaudy reputation, there are some pumpkin beers that are balanced, well-crafted, and, dare I say, really good. Over the course of the last month, I sampled every local pumpkin beer I could get my hands on, and even though most fell into a category I’ve dubbed “sink beer” (beer better served at flushing out my garbage disposal), there were a few that rose above their sugar-spiked opposition. Here, in no particular order, are six great pumpkin beers made in New England.
1. Two Roads RoadsMary’s Baby
Alcohol by Volume: 6.8%
As brewmaster Phil Markowski will tell you, the pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in RoadsMary’s Baby are “relatively standard” ingredients for the category. But what really separates Two Roads’ two-year-old seasonal from its pumpkin brethren is partial rum barrel-aging and a lighter hand when it comes to the addition of pumpkin pie spice. “We’re very moderate on the spicing; people tend to go overboard,” Markowski says. “It’s sort of the American way: if a little is good, then a lot is better. I’m of the opinion that it’s still beer and should predominately taste like beer—not like pumpkin spices with beer added.” The amber ale has a strong, earthy malt base and a nose of vanilla, molasses, cedar, clove, and that unmistakeable hint of rum. RoadsMary’s Baby astonished Markowski with its popularity, selling out just after Labor Day in 2013. This year he decided to quadruple production to meet demand, which apparently didn’t go far enough, as Two Roads easily duplicated the feat.
Pro Tip: For RoadsMary’s Baby, Markowski only ages part of the beer in barrel, but this year he made a small amount that was aged 100-percent in Puerto Rican rum barrels (most likely from Bacardi). The beer, which he’s calling “RoadsMary’s Other Baby,” will be released to select draft accounts around New England. You can try this other Two Roads treat at Bukoswki’s Tavern on October 28.
2. Jack’s Abby Pumpkin Crop Lager
Alcohol by Volume: 5.5%
For his Pumpkin Crop Lager, brewmaster and cofounder Jack Handler doesn’t stop at just one type of gourd. This year he tossed in fresh butternut squash, Blue Hubbard squash, and several other squash and pumpkin varieties, all sourced from Needham’s Volante Farms. “We’ve made the decision that we’ll only brew pumpkin beer with fresh local produce, which limits how much [and] when we can brew it,” Hendler says. “Most breweries either choose to do the same and limit production or release a seasonal that completely drops the pumpkin in favor of spices and canned pumpkin. That never felt honest to me.” Hendler rounds out his lager with pilsner malt from Valley Malt in Hadley and small amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and vanilla. The results are almost refreshing, with a well-integrated brown sugar sweetness and notes of toasted bread, graham cracker, nutmeg, and caramelized root vegetables. It’s the ultimate of embodiment of the fall harvest, and with just under 60 barrels to spare this year, it’s sure to evaporate quickly.
3. Boston Beer Works Black-O-Lantern
Alcohol by Volume: 8.5%
As part of their Overtime Series—a rotating, experimental line of high proof imperial beers—brewers Tim Morse and Scott Linzmeyer decided to take their more traditional Pumpkin Works amber and ratchet up the amount of roasted malts and hops to make a dense, inky alternative. “I felt that a pumpkin stout was a cool concept, but that nothing in the market really represented a great execution of the idea,” Linzmeyer says. “Most of the pumpkin stouts we had tried fell closer to more traditional pumpkin styles than a really rich, dark stout.” This boozy stout, made with heaping amounts of chocolate, dark crystal, and black malt, has characteristics of cola and coffee and is stiff enough to stand up to the necessary pumpkin and spices. Now in just its second year in bottle, the small batch project has become highly allocated. But even if you can’t find a four-pack at your favorite beer shop, it’s worth seeking out at any of Beer Works’ six area brewpubs.
4. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 6.35%
This perennial favorite has a dedicated fanbase for good reason: hops, and lots of them. Smuttynose’s Pumpkin Ale might have have the prerequisite pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, but with a hefty dose of aromatic Cascade and Liberty hops added after the boil, there’s also a refreshing crispness. The hoppy notes of lavender, citrus, and pine cut through the viscosity of the autumnal adjuncts like a squeeze of lime in a fatty bowl of pho—alleviating that always precarious risk of pumpkin spice overkill. In addition, says Smuttynose Minister of Propaganda JT Thompson, Smuttynose Pumpkin benefits from the rejection of “any extracts, tinctures, or anything else of the sort,” making for bracing, spicy amber with plenty of nuance.
5. Cambridge Brewing Company Great Pumpkin Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 5.4%
Welcome to a bigger, brawnier version of brewmaster Will Meyers’ hallowed pumpkin ale. For over 20 years Meyers has left his recipe unscathed, but not this time. He’s beefed up the malt, cinnamon, allspice, and organic sugar pumpkins (sourced, as always, from Wilson Farms in Lexington and The Farm School in Athol) for a medium-bodied brew with aromas of caramel, yeast, nutmeg, and lemon—think pumpkin bread meets a tart Belgian gueuze. “As everyone else brewing pumpkin beers seems to be brewing bigger and spicier beers, we felt our well-balanced little beer just needed a little more oomph,” Meyers says.”The fact that we use fresh, whole, raw pumpkin in the mash allows a fresh ‘squashiness’ to come through. This is a fruity character and it does distinguish our beer from those using purees and flavor extracts.”
Pro Tip: Every October, Meyers uses heirloom varieties of pumpkins to create unique single-batch, pumpkin-infused ales at CBC. This year’s draft only selections include his double witbier with grey ghost pumpkins, “Grey Ghost”; a barrel-aged (in Eagle Rare barrels) English old ale with butternut squash called “Old Butternuts”; and his first ever collaboration with Pretty Things, a Yorkshire strong ale with Blue Jarrahdale pumpkins and pontefract cakes.
6. Cape Ann Brewing Imperial Pumpkin Stout
Alcohol by Volume: 11%
Gloucester’s Cape Ann Brewery calls their Imperial Pumpkin Stout the “Big Brother version” of their original fall seasonal (itself no slouch either at a 7% ABV), and that might be underselling it a bit. This robust, small-batch stout clocks in at a hefty 11% ABV, and with its warming alcohol esters and chewy mouthfeel, could easily double as a stiff nightcap. But with bittersweet notes of black licorice, cinnamon, fig, and cocoa, it shares more similarities to a bitter amaro like Fernet Branca over something, like say, a boozy cognac. Made with roasted barley, Chinook hops, pumpkin pie spice, and freshly cooked pumpkins from Seaview Farm in Rockport, Cape Ann’s Imperial Pumpkin is truly one of the rare heavyweights (in more ways than one) of the season.