The Mountain Times

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Pumpkin Drinker

I've never eaten raw, unseasoned pumpkin - because that would be disgusting - but at times, while carving jack-o'-lanterns, I've been almost curious enough to try it. Without the cinnamon and nutmeg, would pumpkin really be much different from any other squash? Would it yield even a hint of sweetness?

Sometimes, in pumpkin-flavored dishes, the spices overwhelm the base, and I can't actually remember how pumpkin itself is supposed to taste. Yet when pumpkinized food is done right, and the seasoning somehow draws out the pumpkin flavor instead of obscuring it, it's so wonderful - earthy, soft, and sweet - that one has no choice but to rank it among the most unique and lovely ingredients in cooking. It tastes like autumn itself, the season condensed into a vegetable.

And wouldn't it be great if we could bottle all that, make it drinkable? That's the appeal of pumpkin ale - having that rich fall taste at your fingertips. Nowadays, just about every craft brewery worth its hops ships out truckloads of jack-o'-lantern-adorned six-packs in September, but finding a beer that uses pumpkin effectively isn't easy, so this year I consumed eight different bottles of pumpkin ale, with a goal of finding the perfect one. Though I'm no beer critic, I thought I could recoup some of the cost by writing about them.

The first thing I should note about this year's batch of pumpkin ales is that, when you pour them out, you'll find that none of them is bright orange. Maybe the brewers thought that carrot-juice-hued beer would seem gimmicky and that beer connoisseurs would rebel, but to me, this was a disappointment, a portent that the breweries weren't really committed to creating a strong pumpkin experience.

The first beer I tried was the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, and it turned out to be the spiciest of the bunch. I mean that in sort of a terrible way, though: you could probably replicate the Weyerbacher experience by pouring yourself a glass of seltzer and dumping in a few teaspoons of cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. You not only can't taste the pumpkin; you can't taste the beer.

My enthusiasm for this project now somewhat diminished, I was cheered slightly by the Post Road Pumpkin Ale from the Brooklyn Brewery. This time, I could sense the pumpkin - a mild, vegetal sweetness - more than its seasonings. Nice, and I liked the touch of vanilla - but, then, after a while, the beer began to seem a little too mild, too thin, lacking the sort of hearty boldness I was looking for.

If, however, my overall impression was that the Post Road was a little boring, that was only because I had yet to try the Uinta Punk'n ale from Salt Lake City, Utah - which I'm convinced is really just Bud Light with a dash of cinnamon. Unsurprisingly, at 4% ABV, it had the least alcohol of any of the beers I'd bought - actually, I think it had the least everything, except maybe water.

My next brew, New Holland's Ichabod, had more substance, but I drank it not long after having a couple cavities filled by my dentist, and for the whole day everything I ate or drank had, consequently (I guess), a weird, bad metallic taste - including the beer. Bad call on my part not to wait for this one, maybe, but we have deadlines at this newspaper, rain or shine.

The Harvest Time Pumpkin Ale by Big Boss Brewing was the only beer of the bunch whose label didn't advertise the presence of any real pumpkin in the bottle (only spices); Big Boss's website claims the stuff's in there anyway, but it's certainly not overwhelming. This beer felt thick in my mouth and seemed undercarbonated, and thus it reminded me, strangely, of a lot of the flat, near-undrinkable beer I consumed during my trip to England when I was 20.

Finally, on my sixth try, I found a beer that I really enjoyed: Southern Tier's Imperial Pumking, which, thankfully, came in a big 22-oz. bottle. It tasted like a good pumpkin pie - sugary, yes, but not saccharine, with plenty of pumpkin goodness, aided but not overtaken by the usual cinnamon et al. On the other hand, it does such a good job mimicking the pie - rather than creating its own, unique pumpkin experience - that afterward you might wonder why you didn't simply eat a slice instead of drinking a beer that, though a fine imitation, obviously can't replicate the textural sensations of the real thing. On the other, other hand, baking homemade pumpkin pie is a lot more time-consuming than opening a bottle of this stuff.

Next came Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale, which, though not as "decadent" (a Food Network term that I officially can't stand) as Southern Tier's dessert-brew, was probably the most estimable beer of the lot. Like pretty much all the Dogfish Head beers, it's flavorful and complex; at times it didn't taste all that different from some of their other offerings, but when it hit my tongue at the right spot, the pumpkin and spices came rushing through very pleasantly.

I finished up with some Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, which had been brewed (lazily, I presumed) with pumpkin puree rather than fresh, hand-cut pumpkins. In fact, the whole enterprise here gave off a whiff of laziness, from the generic name ("Pumpkin Ale") to the cheesy autumn-greeting-card photo on the label (the other beers had cool cartoon pumpkins), but as it turned out, the beer wasn't bad. It was a lot hoppier than the average pumpkin ale - almost like a spiced IPA, which was cool after all the malt-heavy beers I'd consumed, but at the end of it, I once again had trouble remembering what, exactly, pumpkin was supposed to taste like.

It seems possible that pumpkin ale, like cayenne-infused chocolate, is one of those food-concepts that's more appealing in theory than in practice. In any case, I need to go carve my jack-o'-lantern; maybe I'll take a bite this year.

Tagged: generation y, Gen Y