by Paul Deines
The arrival of autumn is an incredible relief to me. Full-bloom nature gives way to fiery foliage. I can stop pretending to like baseball and give myself over to the genuinely entertaining football. As school begins, I no longer have to tolerate scores of happy children on beaches and public thoroughfares. Movies stop being about people that can fly. Really, autumn purges everything that grates on me.
It also brings the pumpkin ale, which to beer people is a mixed blessing.
See, summer is the season of fruit beers, which often fall short even from esteemed brewers (though I think this summer’s Rübaeus and Hell or High Watermelon were actually quite fun). Come the fall, we’re ready from something a little more serious. A musky saison, maybe, or a chocolaty stout. But pumpkin? Pumpkin’s for those ridiculous lattes they serve at Starbucks or some specialty frosting at Dunkin Donuts. Pumpkin’s for pies and gnocchi. Not beer.
I’m assigning this prejudice, perhaps uncharitably, to the beer snob community. For some reason, pumpkin has become unacceptable as a flavor while equally saccharine flavors like coffee, dark cherry, and fig aren’t. So, a sickly sweet stout like Even More Jesus still draws more respect than a perfectly serviceable gourd-derivative like Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale. (Apologies for the collateral swipe at Evil Twin Brewing, but if you’re looking for a good stout from them, go with Imperial Biscotti Break. That one is revelatory.) It mystifies me, because I’ve never seen had an issue with the pumpkin ale.
In practice, a pumpkin beer produced on the cheap is weak sauce, watery and cloying. So to a certain degree I can understand the barleyphile hate, but there is one exception the masses have closed ranks around one widely-distributed ale. And I concur that said brew is an eye-opener for any pumpkin doubter. I refer, of course, to Southern Tier’s Pumking.
It’s a bullish drink, hovering at an imperial 8.6% ABV. The bottle’s labeling weaves a hokumy yarn about Púca, the Celtic shape-shifting animal that tricks and ultimately dooms foolish travelers. Southern Tier promises a “mystical brew” that “is brewed with pagan spirit.” Goofy as any craft beer marketing, yes, but it indicates the brewer isn’t just tossing off a sweet autumn beer without a second thought.
Pumking, you see, is substantial. Hazy amber, bubbly with a fine fizz head. The nose is not subtle, either: spicy cinnamon and pepper, pie crust, vanilla, caramel, wet grass, a hint of melon, and dollops of baked pumpkin. Tip the glass to your lips, and you’re tasting pumpkin bread doused in butterscotch sauce and dusted with nutmeg, leaving a peppery hotness on the tongue. Only after a few sips does the alcohol clock you in the dome. The brew weighs medium heavy and quite sticky in your mouth.
Pumking embraces all the extravagances that sink subpar pumpkin ales - spiciness, sugariness – and it comes out the other side an assured and vibrant drink. It’s that rare miraculous beer that both I and my girlfriend enjoyed (though she had hers in an 8 oz. pairing glass). Pumpkin beers are supposed to be low-hanging fruit for brewers, I guess, but this is one worth stocking to accompany your red leaves and Jets games.
PUMKING (Southern Tier Brewing Company) – Fall seasonal, as you would expect. Southern Tier is available pretty much anywhere east of the Mississippi and along the West Coast. Plenty of stock out there, but folks tend to freak out about this beer. Jump on it.