Local temperatures have dropped to chilly and crisp, like a flash dance, in the northeastern region of the United States. Although my breath wasn’t exactly making fog in the morning air, there were signs of that transition to cold – steam rising from creeks, deer herding in the meadow, and cows lowing with deep, brusque moans. Silk on the corn is withering to brown, while pumpkins begin to turn bright shades of orange.
That’s a clear signal to me that Pumpkin Ale is just around the corner. Some spicy giants may tingle the tongue with cinnamon and nutmeg, while others come out of fresh fields with roasted squash character. They may be highly hopped, but most glean their flavors from a variety of spices that linger in the glass, sealed in with a voluminous head.
Pumpkin Ales fall into the category of Herb-Spice-and-Vegetable Beers, with a range of ABVs from 4.5% to 9% - sometimes higher. They are best consumed fresh, long before the rich pumpkin and spice flavors begin to fade. Pumpkin Ales celebrate the harvest, and are available for a limited time from late summer throughout the fall.
Not all Pumpkin Ales are created equal. While some of the richest flavors are acquired by roasting pumpkins that are then added to the mash, others may be made with pumpkin puree, pumpkin flavoring, or a bouquet-garni of traditional pumpkin-pie spices. These may include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, or ginger, with a dose of lacto to add creaminess.
Dozens grace the shelves at your local bottle shop, while a steady diet of Pumpkins swish through the taps at your home beer bar. Among these many choices are three of this year’s favorites:
Harpoon UFO Pumpkin Ale is an “unfiltered offering” with a rich malt foundation and earthy appeal. It paints a luscious coating of gourd-like flavor on the palate and reveals every nuance of freshness, without any overpowering spiciness to muddle the finish.
Good Gourd Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Cigar City Brewing rolls into the glass with its cloudy, brushed brown body. Aromas are earthy and real, as if surrounding you with dozens of freshly-cut pumpkins. Spices arise through the air, exotic and intense. Caramel, spice-cake flavor finishes off the ending.
Pumking by Southern Tier Brewing is a classic example of a great Pumpkin Ale. At 8.6% ABV, you may be forewarned to tread lightly, because the mouthfeel is light enough to fool even the most seasoned beer drinker. A full nose of spices blends with graham cracker crustiness, tempered with assertive bitterness in the finish.
Pumpkin Ales may be consumed solo. They are certainly robust enough to serve as liquid spice-bread, with a body leaning from medium to full. But with so many pumpkin beers of the Imperial variety (which denotes higher alcohol levels), you will be well advised to pair them with food.
Good beer-and-food harmonization is achieved by following the guidelines set by the Brewers Association; that is, beer should cut, contrast or complement the foods it accompanies. This may scare you regarding pumpkin ales. What can you eat with it, besides pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, or pumpkin bread? Those are examples of foods that complement, or mirror, the flavors in the beer. But more combinations are awaiting your discovery.
Highly spiced Pumpkin Ales go well with creamy desserts: Crème Brulee, cheesecake, or Italian cannolis. This is because the cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg flavors are highlighted, while the underlying hops cut the fats in these desserts, scrubbing them from the tongue.
Pumpkin Ales also awaken the flavors in duck, turkey and dressed Cornish hens. Serve them with candied sweet potatoes and sausage-and-spice stuffing, and watch the flavors come to life. Pumpkin Ales also go well with center-cut pork chops garnished with spiced apple slices or glazed peaches. The contrasting flavors of the pumpkin add complexity to the poultry and light meats, while bouncing the spiciness of sausage around the perimeter.
Add tapas plates and nuts as sides to Pumpkin Ales, as well. Candied pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts complement the spices in Pumpkin Beers. Although shrimp or crudités would not make a good pairing, you may like the results you get from roasted beet salad with goat cheese and Asian pears or a cheese and meat board.
Whatever you try, reach for discovery. Even a slice of brick-oven flatbread may make your mouth sing with these fresh, gourdy beers. If you find one you like particularly well, please let us all know so we can enjoy it, too.
Carve a pumpkin while you're enjoying that Pumpkin Ale:
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