Every autumn the subculture of pumpkin worship grips the nation. Everything from pumpkin spiced lattes to (presumably) pumpkin head cheese fill the tills of coffee houses and supermarkets with the hard earned dollars of America's hungriest capitalists. And while “Pumpkinmania” may be the cultural equivalent of an overpriced lambswool J. Crew sweater, we here at Optimism Vaccine are certainly not above the annual glorification of gourd-flavored-gimmicks. Especially when it comes to pumpkin beer. And, with the rapid progression of pumpkin-themed brews released every year, how can anybody go about making the right choice? For the benefit of all of our dearly devoted beer aficionado readers (particularly those in the upper Midwest), Optimism Vaccine took the liberty of doing the dirty work and tasted nearly 40 pumpkin beers over the course of one (surprisingly sober) Saturday night. We’re pleased to present the definitive “Pumpkin Beer Power Rankings!” Our comprehensive taste test weeded out the beers best avoided and highlighted the beers you should be passing out with by Thanksgiving ‘15. Trust us: We're professional drinkers.
Before we get started, let’s get a few things out of the way.
1. Where did all this beer come from?
We bought everything we could find from roughly a half-dozen liquor stores in three different states. We ended up with 38 beers.
2. Wait, why are there only 36 beers on the list?
We started with 38 but we accidently bought a cider and a watermelon flavored beer. The former was fine (but not beer), the latter tasted like Jolly Ranchers and cyanide (it was probably beer). If you’re pissed that we didn’t include your favorite pumpkin saison brewed in western Wyoming and aged in a mummified sheep stomach, eat shit. We spent $200 on alcohol for this article and none of us got drunk. That’s dedication.
3. How did you score and rank the beer?
The four esteemed OpVac tasters rated each beer on a ten-point scale based on smell, taste and, for lack of a better term, pumpkin-ness of the beer. Those individual scores were added together to create a composite score. Once we crunched all the numbers we used the label/bottle design to settle any ties.
4. But what about pallet fatigue?
We cleansed our pallets regularly with pretzels and pepperoni pizza, which may or may not be the same method used by the judges at the annual International Wine and Spirit Competition.
5. What did you do with the leftover beer?
We poured most of it into an empty growler and told Shawn’s roommate it was a special pumpkin beer from a local microbrewery.
36. Samuel Adams Pumpkin Batch
Smells Like: Dumpster water.
Tastes Like: Yeasty afterbirth. A hefeweizen brewed in a prolapsed anus.
This one might actually be the biggest surprise from our test. Sam is usually the great unifier, bringing grumpy Coors Light swigging dads and mustachioed beer snob douchebags together. Not this time. Something is horribly wrong with this beer and Jim Koch should be prosecuted for war crimes.
“One time I left a banana in my car for two months and it smelled like this” – Steve C.
35. Leinenkugel’s Harvest Patch Shandy
Smells Like: Not much. Ambiguously sweet.
Tastes Like: An ashtray made of butterscotch.
Like most old guard Milwaukee breweries, Leinenkugel cut their teeth selling dirt cheap American pilsner. At some point they shifted gears and started focusing on beer for people who would rather be drinking wine coolers. You know what? That’s ok. Harvest Shandy, however, is not ok. It’s disgusting, artificially sweet and only squeeked out of the last spot because of how quickly the awful flavor dissipated.
“This tastes like hobo ass juice” Steve K.
34. Atwater Pumpkin Spice Latte
Smells Like: Slightly floral, a bit of vanilla, pumpkin bread.
Tastes Like: Sucking on a bar of soap for eternity.
This tastes like a bad joke turned into a quick homebrew project and then inexplicably bottled and sold. Atwater PSL is watery, over carbonated and has a gross, bitter, vanilla soap flavor that sticks around on your tongue forever. Adding insult to injury, there’s not even the slightest hint of latte flavor to be found. At least the bottle looks pretty cool.
33. Liberty Street Punkin’ Pie
Smells Like: Oily hops and stomach acid.
Tastes Like: Heartburn.
Liberty Street’s take on a pumpkin pie beer has a brief, fleeting moment of spicy clove flavor before an atomic leg drop of acidic tartness smashes your tongue into oblivion. Bonus points for a bottle label inspired by Repo Man.
32. Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin
Smells Like: Clove, cinnamon, brown sugar and nutmeg.
Tastes Like: Malt liquor and Fun Dip.
From the creators of “We just sold you Miller Lite with a fucking orange slice in it” comes the exact same thing with a surprisingly aromatic artificial pumpkin spice blend added. Seriously, this stuff smells great. It’s a shame that it’s cloyingly sweet and has a revolting alcohol-forward funk to boot.
31. Saugatuck Pumpkin Chai
Smells Like: Milky, boozed up chai.
Tastes Like: A Tazo bag.
The label on Saugatuck’s pumpkin brew looks like something ripped from the pages of a creepy children’s book you’d find at your grandma’s house. The beer inside the bottle tastes like a cold, carbonated glass of unsweetened earl grey. Saugatuck can pull off a good gimmick beer (like their Neapolitan Milk Stout), but this flavor flat-out doesn’t work.
30. Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale
Smells Like: The usual pumpkin spice combo.
Tastes Like: Generic pumpkin beer with a hint of something salty.
This one was watery and largely unremarkable, aside from tasting ever-so-slightly like pickles. Why the hell does a pumpkin beer taste like pickle brine?
29. Jack-O Traveler Shandy
Smells Like: Cinnamon, artificial sweetener.
Tastes Like: Pepsi.
No, we’re not kidding. This stuff tastes like pumpkin spice Pepsi. Miros and Cuff found it endearing, Shawn and Kohlmann thought it was vomit inducing.
“This is the choice of a new generation” – Miros
28. Greenbush Unicorn Killer
Smells like: Inoffensive craft beer.
Tastes like: Metallic malt liquor.
Although a beautiful product – the label, name and color are all top notch, Unicorn Killer’s ruse is spoiled once you taste it and are immediately Delorean’d back to sippin’ on chili dogs and Colt 45s outside the Tasty Freeze in your late teens. Greenbush is a fine brewery that often displays serious talent. Unicorn Killer is reminder that they’re still relatively new to the scene and have some stuff to figure out.
27. Epic Fermentation Without Representation
Smells like: The produce section.
Tastes like: Expired V8.
Inside this elegantly labeled bomber is an unpleasant vegetal prominence, incongruous with the very idea of beer drinking. The heavy spaghetti squash and celery stalk flavor gives us the idea that Fermentation Without Representation is the closest we have to the type of alcoholic drinks present at the inaugural Thanksgiving. It’s like a squash cornucopia went through a Jack LaLanne juicer.
26. New Glarus Pumpkin Pie Lust
Smells like: Yeast.
Tastes like: Yeast.
A common problem with pumpkin beers is the dissonance between a name that teases a sumptuous, exceedingly flavorful pumpkin taste and the vague pumpkin taste that actually exists. And a common problem with beers from Wisconsin’s darling brewery is that 75% of them end up being primarily defined as “creamy yeast” – not exactly the copy you want on a label. But, New Glarus’ Pumpkin Pie Lust should be noted for how beautiful the bottle’s label is.
“I lust after a better beer” – Shawn
25. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
Smells like: Citrus.
Tastes like: Peach.
The biggest disappointment with this one is the lack of Billy Corgan faces on the artwork. Infinitely sad about it, actually. After that, is the fact that it tastes much more like an imperial peach beer than anything resembling pumpkin. Then, it's how much it pales next to Shipyard’s standard pumpkin offering. It’s a fine beer, really – just mislabeled and inappropriately named.
24. Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream
Smells like: Toasted pumpkin seed.
Tastes like: Well done bread.
Every non-#9 Magic Hat seems ancillary, and the Wilhelm Scream has a taste that doubles down on that spin-off feeling. Not that our expectations were too high for this one, but we were sad to find out a beer with this cool a name was so underwhelming. Overall, this is just an exceedingly mediocre beer with some interesting notes and odd artwork.
23. O'Fallon Pumpkin Beer
Smells like: The titular gourd.
Tastes like: Generic pumpkin beer; slightly too sweet.
With label art that says, “I had my 15 year-old whip this up on the family computer,” and a name that tells us, "This is beer, with pumpkin stuff!” O’Fallon’s seasonal beer is exactly what you’d expect: watery and inoffensive, just like your grandpap’s beer! Pumpkin beer drinkers, meet your Mendoza line.
22. Jolly Pumpkin La Parcella
Smells Like: Sour citrus and dark beer funk.
Tastes Like: Not Pumpkin.
Until recently, the Jolly Pumpkin brewery didn’t actually make a pumpkin flavored beer—a fact which every goddamn beer drinking bro in Michigan loves to repeat. So, this is it. We finally have a Jolly Pumpkin beer and somehow its biggest issue is not having nearly enough pumpkin flavor. Go figure.
21. Brewery Vivant Pumpkin Tart
Smells Like: Pumpkin spice and yeast.
Tastes Like: A sour Belgian beer.
This one is too much Belgian and not enough pumpkin. Mostly it just falls flat and the flavors get muddled together into something generic and forgettable. Brewery Vivant is known for their nuanced Belgian spin on different styles, but this one proved too hard to balance.
20. Griffin Claw Screamin’ Pumpkin
Smells Like: Peppermint, cinnamon, cardamom and Ace Bandage.
Tastes Like: Cinnamon foam.
Don’t let the dopey name and generic logo fool you; Griffin Claw can make a damn good beer. This is a damn not-that-great, but still perfectly drinkable beer. You won't be screamin' for a refill anytime soon.
19. North Peak Hooligan
Smells Like: Flowers and pumpkin puree.
Tastes Like: A damn fine pale ale.
Comments: North Peak's Red Stripe medicine bottle and meticulously clean design works well with Hooligan's orange scheme, and its hoppy take on the pumpkin beer earns it niche status. Unfortunately, the pumpkin is all in the nose.
18. Boulevard Funky Pumpkin
Smells Like: Pumpkin cola.
Tastes Like: Sour Pumpkin RC.
Comments: There's a nice carbonation that greets at you the door before the the sourness obliterates your mouth. Then, you're sent packing with all the funk and none of the pumpkin. A masterclass in how sour beers shouldn't taste.
17. Lakefront Pumpkin Lager
Smells Like: Well balanced, straightforward pumpkin.
Tastes Like: Smooth lager, vaguely pumpkin.
Comments: Just like its Spartan approach to label and name, this beer's pumpkin flavor is overly restrained. This usually a favorite around the OpVac office, but this year's harvest seems slight. Still a routinely drinkable beer.
16. New Holland Ichabod Ale
Smells like: Spicy, burnt pie crust.
Tastes like: Fruity with a hint of potpourri.
A little too spicy and fruity to be a true pumpkin ale. Perhaps the best named beer in this group, and usually this is a perennial favorite, but the 2015 version is heavy on the spice and bit more fruit-forward than one would expect from a pumpkin beer.
15. Kennebunkport Pumpkin Ale
Smells like: Spices, particularly nutmeg.
Tastes like: Eggnoggy.
This beer drinks like a very refreshing nutmeg ale. In fact, the nutmeg overload shouts "shortcut," which isn't so surprising given it's a Trader Joes product. However, I guess the shortcut paid off because this is sort of compulsively drinkable.
14. Anderson Valley Fall Hornin’
Smells like: Good, clean nose all the way through. What a genuine pumpkin beer should smell like.
Tastes like: A deceptively dark, strong beer.
While we weren't fans of the sophomoric name, the beer is perfectly drinkable. It’s pumpkin-y enough for Cuff, and the OpVac crew agrees that it "smells like what a pumpkin beer SHOULD smell like."
13. New Belgium Pumpkick
Smells like: Kraft-brand powdered spaghetti (says Kohlmann)
Tastes like: Smooth, pumpkin and spice flavor, with acidic undertones. Also, donuts.
It’s visually arresting and even a little interesting. In the end, it reminded us very much of a pumpkin-flavored Fat Tire. Pumpkick sustains New Belgium's status as The Gap of beer.
12. Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale
Smells like: A combination of seasonal, sweet spices.
Tastes like: Super gourdy.
Some bland artwork, especially considering the fact that its flavor profile is far superior to its sister beer (Smashed Pumpkin), which has a far more visually appealing label. The essence of pumpkin is nearly on-point, which seems to be a challenge to perfect with many of the brews we tasted.
11. Alaskan Pumpkin Ale
Smells like: A classic amber ale: notes of toffee, caramel and malt.
Tastes like: Tastes like it smells, but there’s an initial, unique smokey flavor that titillates the taste buds.
It’s a perfectly fine beer, although it finishes slightly flat. We don't usually come to Alaskan Brewery expecting much of anything, but their pumpkin is certainly a highlight in their repertoire. The real reason it can't penetrate the top ten is that fleeting tomato taste...
10. Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale
Smells like: Beer…with a hint of pumpkin.
Tastes like: A good beer with fewer spice notes commonly found in most pumpkin beers.
This is a damn good, very drinkable beer that is very subtle and nuanced. We also loved the label artwork and the bright orange, painted look of the bottle. In a class of its own, both in flavor and presentation.
9. Arcadia Jaw-Jacker
Smells like: Great! Strong spice and pumpkin pie notes, makes you eager to tip it back.
Tastes like: It’s compulsively drinkable, but not memorable. Compared to its very promising nose, it falls a bit flat on the pallet.
Arcadia is good at fooling you into thinking its better than it is. Every beer tastes good until it tastes like nothing. I'm pretty sure they've survived purely on the merits of its proximity to the craft beer pioneers at Bell's. However, Jaw-Jacker is the cream of their shallow crop, and though it's not perfect, Arcadia's pumpkin brew balances spice and pumpkin better than most.
8. Flying Monkeys Paranormal Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Smells like: Vanilla, caramel and soap.
Tastes like: Like a dark winter ale, with vanilla coming through strong on the palette with a weak finish.
For something that came in its own special box (and hefty price tag), it certainly held our interest. Perhaps the only drawback was a lack of pumpkin essence. The artwork can be best described as “Adventure Time Chaos.”
7. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Smells like: Whoppers (as in those chocolate malt balls) with subtle spice notes.
Tastes like: A very assertive brown ale; a little muddy with a very subtle pumpkin flavor.
Dogfish Head seems incapable of making a shitty beer. Our main complaint was that while usually the brewery is classy and subtle with its artwork, this label is like a combination between a gas station hat and a 1950’s pinup.
6. Ballast Point Pumpkin Down
Smells like: A traditional Scottish ale with typical spice notes found in most pumpkin beers.
Tastes like: Bold, Scottish ale taste; malt-forward with a subtle pumpkin flavor that comes out in the second half near the finish.
Just a fantastic beer, but maybe not quite pumpkin-y enough to make it to the top 5. We were also split on the artwork: a bit Iron Maiden-esque, could be cleaner with something signifying it as a pumpkin beer, but still very interesting and appealing.
5. Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma
Smells like: Sweet potatoes, with subtle notes of nutmeg and spices.
Tastes like: Sweetness balanced with an earthy, full-bodied bite that blankets your pallet without an obnoxious, lingering aftertaste. Fucking delicious!
Indeed Brewing is a Northeast Minneapolis brewery that is exclusive to the Minnesota market. Their artwork is probably the OpVac favorite of all of the beers we drank. This beer was docked a few points, though, since it’s technically a sweet potato beer. But holy hell, we liked it and we’d drink the fuck out of it if we could get up to Minnesota more often.
4. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Smells like: How you want it to smell, with earthy and sweet notes
Tastes like: It’s hard and complex.
This is a beer drinker's beer; brewed for true aficionados to seek out. Its boldness might be a bit much for casual pumpkin beer drinkers, though, so proceed with caution: it's quite alcoholic, which renders it less than accessible. The artwork made us laugh, it looks like a pumpkin blow job, or rather, a larping pumpkin getting a blumpkin.
3. Southern Tier Warlock
Smells like: Dark chocolate, toffee, and the original Pumking.
Tastes like: Notes of butterscotch, caramel, peanut, vanilla and pumpkin.
Sometimes, it’s just nice to taste a pumpkin beer that skews a bit different, but is also ultimately successful in its execution. It certainly helps that it is the child of the best pumpkin beer in the world (that we’ve tasted)! Also, we’re fans of the classy artwork.
2. Anderson Valley Pinchy Jeek Barl
Smells like: Bourbon! (The ale is aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels for 6 months)
Tastes like: Well-balanced. You definitely taste the bourbon, but it’s tempered super-well. There’s true pumpkin flavor, along with some subtle pastry-sweetness.
We purchased this on a whim, not knowing what the hell it was. We were skeptical, based on the ugly label with its schizo logo, which is reminiscent of other big breweries’ labels. But that name is fun and memorable! More importantly, this beer shocked the hell out of us! One of the most unique and delicious beers we’ve ever tasted.
1. Southern Tier Pumking
Smells like: Notes of clove and other spices. And beer.
Tastes like: Full pumpkin pie flavor from beginning to end, from crust to whip. Nuanced, yet it evolves on the palate.
A bona fide classic in every way, from the superior taste to the near-iconic (but simple) label artwork. Seriously, it’s probably impossible to top this perennial favorite. This beer was a game changer when it came out, but now it IS the game. This is what every pumpkin beer should aspire to be.