Everyone has an opinion on pumpkin beer.
While preparing to write this week’s column, I posed a question on Twitter asking whether folks had already begun to drink pumpkin brews. Answers ranged from a resounding, “You bet,” to, “I’m hoping to go all season without a drop.” Said one gourd-hating tweeter, “Normally I’m jealous of Gary Dzen having to write about beer, but this week? Nope. Not interested in drinking pumpkin beer for any reason.”
Pumpkin beer is polarizing, but it’s also not a monolith. Just as it doesn’t fit neatly into any seasonal categorization, pumpkin beer can’t be easily defined by words like “hoppy” or “full bodied.” You can turn any style of beer into a pumpkin beer, which is why, in recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of pumpkin porters, stouts, and even sours, attempting to fill a niche that is a constantly moving target.
Enter 21st Amendment, the San Francisco brewery known for putting a nontraditional fruit into its popular Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer. Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan didn’t have to go far for inspiration in brewing a pumpkin beer, calling on Dick Cantwell, founder of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing and the Elysian Great Pumpkin Beer Fest. The brewers describe the resulting collaboration as something of a happy accident. Rather than agree to collaborate on one beer, the pair agreed to disagree on two.
The result is a pair of dueling brews, a Baltic Porter brewed with pumpkin, and a Belgian Tripel brewed with pumpkin, both named He Said. The dark beer comes in a light-colored can, and vice versa. You get two cans of each in a brilliant little four-pack, with side-view portraits of each brewer staring at the other. I admit, I’m in love with the packaging.
“Dick remembers our collaboration conversations one way, while I remember it another,” Sullivan says in a press release. “And so goes the He Said story.”
I sampled both beers recently, starting with the lighter of the two. Brewed with pumpkin puree and pumpkin juice, the Tripel also contains the spices galangal and tarragon.
There’s a grassy, fresh smell to this one. It manages to be meaty in taste, in the pumpkin-y, expected way of the style. The finish is dry, a Belgian Tripel moonlighting as a pumpkin beer, perhaps unsure if it wants to do it again.
The Baltic Porter version of He Said is stuffed with smoke, coffee, and dark chocolate. There’s pumpkin puree and juice in here, too, but it’s harder to parse out the pumpkin flavor with the style. Vietnamese cinnamon and caraway seed don’t exactly clear things up.
These are two very good beers, possibly aided by but certainly not made worse by the addition of pumpkin. If you’re looking to be hit over the head with pumpkin or related pie spice, this isn’t the place to go. Neither of these beers is going to solve the great pumpkin beer debate, other than to prove that good beer can indeed be made with the ingredient.
Rate my pumpkins
You may think you like pumpkin beer, but odds are you’re doing less to show it than Nicola Chamberlain and Alexandra Dietrich. For the last three years, the duo has spent the months of September and October sampling a pumpkin beer a day, 61 in all, from Sept. 1 to Halloween.
“The original idea was to get ten or so different pumpkin beers and write down our thoughts on each of them,” says Dietrich.
The pair break their reviews into a schedule they can wrap their heads around, starting with known entities like Shipyard Pumpkinhead and Harpoon UFO Pumpkin, before breaking into categories like imperials and stouts.
“As there are many substyles within pumpkin beer, our strategy to keep from getting overwhelmed is to mix these fairly evenly over the 61 days,” says Chamberlain. “You might have a pumpkin imperial stout one day, follow it on the calendar with a traditional pumpkin, then maybe a pumpkin cider to keep it light on the third.”
Each night, either Dietrich or Chamberlain will choose a pumpkin brew and share her thoughts on Twitter and Facebook. They have yet to run out of options. About a third of the reviews each season are new. Almost every day, they run into loyalists questioning their very existence.
“I’ve found that many people are dead-set in their favorite pumpkin beer being the one that tastes the most like pumpkin pie,” says Dietrich. “People will go out of their way to tell us how much they hate pumpkin beer. Good, more for us.”
What’s the hardest thing about drinking and reviewing 61 pumpkin beers in 61 days?
“There are only so many synonyms for the color orange,” says Dietrich.
You can follow Dietrich and Chamberlain’s exploits at www.ratemypumpkins.com.Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.