Drank: The Greatest Pumpkin

A blind taste-off of 23 pumpkin beers and ciders.

SMASHING DRUNKINS: After 23 pumpkin beers and ciders, Doc's Draft was the victor.

When it comes to pumpkiny booze, no one touches New York. That’s what nine Willamette Week tasters found from a blind taste-off of pumpkin beer and cider.

The Oregon debut of Pumking, the vaunted imperial pumpkin ale from western New York's Southern Tier Brewing, was delayed by a distribution shakeup, so we thought we'd try some other pumpkin beers and ciders. We emptied the shelves at Belmont Station and Fred Meyer, and the Empire State still lit our lantern.

Below, the results of a blind taste-off in which tasters ranked 23 squashy suds on a 100-point scale. Fort George's Rumpkin, in the middle of the pack, was the highest-rated local offering. 

Hard Apple Pumpkin Cider, 81.2 points

Doc's Draft Hard Ciders, wvwinery.com.

The hard truth is that pumpkin alone doesn't taste like much when fermented into beer. Rather, the flavors we think of as "pumpkin" in beer or cider come from the spices. At only 5 percent alcohol, this Warwick, N.Y., product was packed with a whole pie's worth of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.  

Tasting notes: "This kicks ass. A little nutmeg, a lot of pumpkin and not too sweet." >> "It really balances the apple and pumpkin—it's like a hug from autumn." >> "A light, crisp cider that brings back memories of my mother's sugar-free pumpkin pie."

The Great Pumpkin, 77.1

Elysian Brewing, elysianbrewing.com.

Seattle's Elysian is the pumpkin king of the West Coast, making a dozen of its own pumpkin beers and throwing the region's largest pumpkin beer festival (that was last weekend, sorry). Their 8.1 percent alcohol standby was the highest-rated beer in the bunch—mostly on the strength of its nose.

Tasting notes: “Smells like canned pumpkin pie mix.” >> “Tasty, but I’d rather sniff it than drink it.”  >> “The color is amazing, too. So orange!”

Dark o' the Moon, 76.5

Elysian Brewing, elysianbrewing.com.

Careful readers may recall that I trashed this beer in a review last year. ("Elysian's stout is far too thick and meaty for whatever little decorative baby gourds found their way into the mash," I wrote.) I'm still unimpressed, but our panel disagreed.

Tasting notes: "Creamy stout with nice spices. Well-balanced and easy-drinking." >> "I want to make muffins out of this." >> "It smells like molasses but the flavor is not as powerful as I'd expect, which is a nice surprise."

Fermentation Without Representation, 73.1

Epic Brewing, epicbrewing.com.

This hefty porter from Salt Lake City uses five malts and makes good use of vanilla beans, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. This was my personal favorite, though many tasters found it too light on pumpkin and too heavy on other spices.

Tasting notes: “Hearty with a candy-corn aftertaste.”  >> “Chicory and malted milk.” >> “All I get is vanilla. Where is my pumpkin?”

Elysian Night Owl, 71.5

Elysian Brewing, elysianbrewing.com.

Little brother to Elysian's Great Pumpkin, this very drinkable pumpkin ale uses lots of squash to get a rounder, more melony flavor than many others.

Tasting notes: “Does a gourd proud.” >> “Smooth, subtly pumpkin-flavored with lots of cinnamon.”  >> “Slow-building flavor with warm aftertaste.”

Pumpkin Cider, 68

Ace Hard Cider, acecider.com.

This Sonoma County company makes ciders of all varieties. Pumpkin was added back in 2010, and was then the first of its kind on the west coast.

Tasting notes: "It tastes like pumpkin white wine."

"Like a Granny Smith with nutmeg." >> "Chunky applesauce minus the chunks."

Autumn Maple, 64.6

The Bruery, thebruery.com.

Technically, this seasonal from Orange County's Bruery is a yam beer, made with yams, maple syrup and molasses. This brew's Belgian yeast proved divisive.

Tasting notes: "Nutty sour flavor with a smoky finish." >> "Nutty, rich—so yeasty!" >> "Tart with a finish that overstays its welcome."

Rumpkin, 62.2

Fort George Brewing, fortgeorgebrewery.com.

From a growler filled at Belmont Station, this barrel-aged stout was big, bold and not nearly pumpkiny enough to win over gourdheads.

Tasting notes: "Pumpkin spice latte-flavored mocha stout." >> "Not much pumpkin, but it's a great Christmas beer!" >> "Bittersweet chocolate with a light body. Refreshingly devoid of spices."

La Parcela No. 1 Pumpkin Ale, 56.4

Jolly Pumpkin, jollypumpkin.com.

Don't be fooled: Despite the name, most beers from this Michigan brewery specializing in French and Belgian brews are not made with pumpkin. And the one that was? Meh.

Tasting notes: “It’s a pumpkin-colored sour beer.”  >> “Tastes like pumpkin kombucha.” >> “Too sweet and tart for the gathering darkness of autumn.”

Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale, 54

Blue Moon, bluemoonbrewingcompany.com.

In the past two years, this MillerCoors imprint has made peanut butter, caramel apple and agave nectar-flavored ales. This pumpkin ale has become a standby—you can do a lot worse at this price.

Tasting notes: "Mild, simple, quaffable." >> "Less is more. Nice pumpkiny finish."

Pumpkick, 56.1

New Belgium, newbelgium.com.

It'd be cool to see what this Colorado craft brewer could do with the pumpkin ale in its premium Lips of Faith series. This bottle just came in a cheap six-pack, though—a dash of cranberry juice didn't take it to the top.

Tasting notes: "Like water for pumpkin." >> "Very tinny." >> "Fizzy and light."

Pumpkin Ale, 50.4

Laurelwood Brewing, laurelwoodbrewpub.com.

Formerly known as Stingy Jack—the same name another brewer was using—this classic pumpkin ale starts with a mild amber base. Despite only 12 IBUs, far lower than many other beers on this list, it struck tasters as too bitter.

Tasting notes: "Too much fucking clove." >> "Rusty pumpkin." >> "IPA: India Pumpkin Ale."

Pumpkin Ale, 48.9

Buffalo Bill's, buffalobillsbrewery.com.

This first-fave craft brewery in California concentrates on weird, fruity brews (strawberry, orange blossom, blueberry) and markets this as America's original pumpkin ale. 

Tasting notes: "Hints of canned soup."

Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin, 49.4

Uinta, uintabrewing.com.

This Utah brewery's premium pumpkin brew, which is aged in oak barrels, fares better than its modestly priced sibling but is still in the bottom half of the patch.

Tasting notes: “Very yeasty and pungent.” >> 

"It will never leave my mouth. Life tastes like this now." >> "I almost have to sneeze."

Smashed Pumpkin, 48.4

Shipyard, shipyard.com.

From the other Portland, this East Coast favorite is what fall in New England tastes like. Apparently, it's not as good as fall in New York or Seattle.

Tasting notes: “Dank, woolly aftertaste.” >>  “Tastes like a bay leaf.”

Harvest Pumpkin Ale, 45.6

Samuel Adams, samueladams.com.

Sick of seeing those Mainies get filthy rich on friggin' pumpkin beer, the Bawston lawgar maker finally does a friggin' pumpkin beer of its own.

Tasting notes: "This is boring and unremarkable."

>> "This is the ghost of a pumpkin beer."

Pumpkin Wheat, 44.6

Shock Top, shocktopbeer.com.

Anheuser-Busch's answer to Coors' Blue Moon pumpkin beer was inoffensive but unmemorable.

Tasting notes: "Doesn't really announce itself in any way." >> "Grass—butter and grass."

Fall Hornin', 44.2

Anderson Valley Brewing, avbc.com.

Anderson Valley's summer seasonal, Solstice, is one of the best in the game. Fall Hornin' is a disappointing follow-up.

Tasting notes: “Burnt malt on the aftertaste.” >>  “Tastes likes allspice that’s been on the shelf for a couple years.”

Pumpkin Porter, 48

Alaskan, alaskanbeer.com.

Fun fact: Coastal Alaska, like Oregon and Nova Scotia, is an ideal place to grow car-sized pumpkins. None went into Juneau brewery's mash.

Tasting notes: "Pumpkin Amber Bock?"

Brewing Punk'n, 43.1

Uinta, uintabrewing.com.

On the plus side, it's organic.

Tasting notes: "Smells like Sara Lee pie filling but no flavor." >> "Gingerbread cookies left out overnight."

Private Reserve Pumpkin, 36.9

Woodchuck, woodchuck.com.

Question: How much Woodchuck would a woodchuck chug if a woodchuck could chug?  Answer: very little.

Tasting notes: "Pumpkin-flavored spritzer. Way too sweet." >> "A cloyingly sweet grilled peach with a cup of sugar poured on top."

Smoked Pumpkin Cider, 22.9

Tieton Cider Works, tietonciderworks.com.

A startlingly bad offering from this normally solid Washington cidery.

Tasting notes: "Pumpkin shandy?" >> "Del Monte fruit cocktail?" >> "The aroma of rotting apples."

Hansel and Gretel, 15.1

Elysian Brewing, elysianbrewing.com.

Most of the dozen ciders made by Seattle's Elysian are pretty good. This one is very, very, very bad.

Tasting notes: “Tastes like ginger-flavored hair spray.” >> “Liquid stone-top cleaner?” 

GO: The Killer Pumpkin Festival is at the Green Dragon, 928 SE 9th Ave., on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 19-20. 11 am. Samples and pints available for purchase.

WWeek 2015

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