by Paul Deines
It’s that time of year again, people! Even as I write this, I’m wearing thick socks and a light sweater. I’m 7-1 in my fantasy football league. I’m already about the imminent cancellation of terrible fall shows. So now it’s only meet that I should write my yearly pumpkin beer review.
I see at times trends that may not exist, but I do feel there’s been a tectonic shift in the craft brewers’ attitudes toward the pumpkin. Brooklyn Brewery, Dogfish Head, Southern Tier and many others have long had fine autumn pumpkin offerings, but things have kicked up another level of late. There are seriously sought after pumpkin brews these days: Avery Brewing’s bourbon barrel-aged pumpkin porter Pump[KY]n, for one; also CAUTION! CONTAINS REAL PUMPKIN!!! a pumpkin barleywine out from Voodoo Brewing; and Griffin Claw’s Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin.
The pumpkin ale, it seems, has moved out of that dreary flavoring-infused tonic you’re obligated to swill down once each October. Now, it’s something to curate. And that brings me to the newest West Coast brewer to start distributing to New York: Almanac Beer Co. Based out of San Francisco, Almanac has been brewing commercially since 2010 since its founding by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan. The brewers have a handmade, locally-sourced ethos. Their products are seasonal and infused with ingredients from nearby farms. Their year-round offerings include a saison, an IPA and a gose, but their most recognizable product is the Farm to Barrel series. This rotating series of adventurous, fruit- and vegetable-based, barrel-fermented beers typify what Almanac is about.
And what better October drink can there be than Almanac’s Heirloom Pumpkin? Initially brewed last year and labeled as a barleywine, it’s been revived this year with that designation omitted. This is just one example of how such style demarcations are blurry at best. Heirloom Pumpkin is a 12% malty pale amber ale with a pronounced fruity character. That’s enough to slot it into the barleywine camp, but I wouldn’t place it in the same conversation, experientially, as Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Ale, J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale, or Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Barleywine.
Nope, this beer is about two things: pumpkin and barrel aging. Almanac has crafted a big seasonal brew by incorporating 1,000 pounds of roasted gourds and aging for a year in brandy and rye barrels. Then, they blended the two barrel-aged ales with some fresh-brewed ale and added spices.
As stated above, it pours an opaque rosy amber with a fleeting rocky head. The nose is strangely barnyard, with crisp cider notes and musty dried hay. It’s grassy and sweet, with notes of kiwi and unripe apple. A bit wild without being funky, there’s not actually a dominant pumpkin-spice smell. The tartness isn’t as pronounced in the taste as the nose would suggest. Rather, you get malted mealiness and oak (though little whisky) and, at last, the pumpkin and spice. There’s cinnamon, cloves, pepper, but also lemon zest, pear and fuji apple. The ale is also quite lightweight and dry for its ABV. Ruminating on it, I realize that most pumpkin beers taste like pumpkin pie filling, while Almanac’s is reminiscent of a gourd cut open straight form the patch.
As delicate and bright as Heirloom Pumpkin is, I’m not sure it’ll unseat Pumking as my preferred pumpkin ale. Almanac’s beer is brighter, tarter, and dewier, than the Southern Tier’s. It’s also higher in ABV by nearly half. Heirloom Pumpkin is a tasty diversion; it’s the type of beer I’d recommend as a one-off rather than a seasonal staple.
HEIRLOOM PUMPKIN (Almanac Brewing Co.) Almanac Beer Co. currently only distributes in California, Colorado and New York. But if you’re in those markets, you’ll probably be able to catch Heirloom Pumpkin for the next few weeks in bottle shops and specialty food stores.