Pumpkin beers provide a popular taste of fall

| Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Retailers love seasonal marketing opportunities.

Based on trends in the food and beverage markets, you could call this time of year Pumpkin Season. Pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin latte, pumpkin ravioli and pumpkin cookies are among the hundreds, if not thousands, of products that creep into our consumer consciousness after the school year starts. One pumpkin-flavor treat that continues to grow in popularity is pumpkin beer.

The craft-beer market share continues to grow at a time when large brewery volumes are in decline, according to the Brewers Association. From 2009-2011, the number of craft breweries operating in the United States grew from 1,596 to 1,989, while the number of large and noncraft breweries stayed about the same.

It comes as no surprise that the popularity and availability of seasonal craft beers is also increasing.

Pumpkin beer dates to Colonial times when malt was scarce but pumpkins, a native North American plant, were plentiful and a source of fermentable sugars. Pumpkin beers remained commonplace until the early-19 th century, when quality malts became increasingly accessible.

Today, many who appreciate craft beer eagerly await the release of the seasonal pumpkin brews. Most modern brewers aim for a taste that is more akin to pumpkin pie, a result that is achieved by adding pumpkin pie-friendly spices to the beer. Actual cooked, plain pumpkin is not terribly exciting as a flavor, although a few breweries do use real pumpkin in their brewing process. But the popularity of all things pumpkin, including beer, is more likely the promise of the aroma and taste of brown sugar, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and whipped cream combined with pumpkin.

Zack Ruskin, Brewmaster for Brixton Brewing, says autumn always reminds him to drink pumpkin and spiced beers. But he considers brewing with pumpkin to be rather tedious. He prefers, instead, to focus on his traditional Belgium-style beers and enjoy the fruits of others' labor. His personal favorite is the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale.

Most of the pumpkin brews sampled here delivered at least a hint of part of that pumpkin-pie combination of spices. This, in part, explains why these beers disappear so quickly from store shelves and bar inventories.

So, while there still is time to purchase and savor these delightful brews, we've compiled a short list of some of the pumpkin beers still available in our area. With the professional assistance of Amanda Bowen from Vecenie Distributing and some beer-friendly neighbors, we assembled and tasted several seasonal pumpkin offerings.

Wolaver's Pumpkin Ale, Otter Creek Brewing/Wolaver's, 5.35 percent ABV (alcohol by volume): Wolaver's is a certified organic beer brewed in Vermont with Vermont pumpkins. Wolaver's is more lightly spiced than many pumpkins beers, with a slight aroma and finish of clove and cinnamon. This is not a sweet, pie-like beer. Rather, it tastes more like real pumpkin.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, 7 percent ABV: The Dogfish Head Punkin offers a well-balanced blend of subtle brown-sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg flavors. It has just a hint of maltiness, but offers more of a true beer flavor than the others in this group.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, Smuttynose Brewing Co., 5.84 percent ABV: Brewed with pumpkin puree in the mash, Smuttynose is slightly hoppy with subtle floral notes over the spices and, like the Wolaver's, is not sweet at all. This ale offers a true pumpkin taste from start to finish.

America's Original Pumpkin Ale, Buffalo Bill's Brewery, 5.2 percent ABV: The recipe dates to the 1980s. The label claims it is “America's original pumpkin beer.” True or not, this beer starts with a sweet and spicy aroma, but finishes with just a hint of citrus and ginger. It is very light-bodied and often thought of as the beginner's pumpkin beer. It's a good introduction to craft beer for the typical light domestic-beer drinker.

Ichabod Pumpkin Ale, New Holland Brewing Co., 5.5 percent ABV: The Ichabod balances an aroma that hints of pine, cinnamon, citrus and clove with a slightly hoppy taste and light body.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Weyerbacher Brewing Co., 8 percent ABV: This beer was more aromatic and a little sweeter than the rest of the beers in this group. It has a slightly higher alcohol content, and finishes with some nice notes of clove. It's the most pumpkin pie-like of the group.

O'Fallons Pumpkin Beer, O'Fallon Brewery, 5.5 percent ABV: This beer offers hints of butterscotch, roasted gourds and nutmeg. It is slightly sweet, light-bodied and generally well-rounded.

Woodchuck Private Reserve Pumpkin Cider, Woodchuck Hard Cider, 6 percent ABV: Cider is apple-based, as opposed to barley-based, so this is in a class of its own. This cider is light, sweet and pleasantly effervescent. Although this was very enjoyable, and ultimately, quite drinkable, there was really no outstanding pumpkin taste. This basically tasted like a very good hard apple cider with less apple taste and just a hint of pumpkin-pie spices.

Olga Watkins is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

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