There may be no style of beer more polarizing than the pumpkin variety.
Though hugely popular — enough to warrant a few new brands every fall, anyway — they also seem to elicit more sneers than any other style. I've largely been among the sneerers, which is why when it came time to evaluate 20 pumpkin beers, I called in a die-hard fan.
Pumpkin beer was my 24-year-old colleague Lauren Krause's entry into the craft-beer world after college. Not only does she find autumn's smells and flavors "insanely comforting" (draw No. 1), pumpkin beer was an easy style to reckon with when faced with so many options (draw No. 2). It's probably a common story that helps explains pumpkin beer's popularity.
Now, she said, "It's a must-have — I have to have pumpkin beer every fall."
One afternoon, we assembled a team to taste those beers. The conclusion: Even in such a narrow style, the taste, body and quality vary widely. Even Krause was surprised at the differences.
"I had mostly lumped them all together," she said. "It was interesting to compare and contrast and see who knows what they're doing and who doesn't."
Here's who knows what they're doing and who doesn't, with comments from our discussion:
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (Complex web of spice; a standard for a reason)
Hoppin' Frog Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin Ale (Large and savory, with more spice than pumpkin)
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager (One of the few pumpkin lagers, cleanly executed for easy drinking)
New Holland Ichabod (Nicely bitter finish follows authentic pumpkin flavor)
Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus (One of the few, if not only, pumpkin lambics. Huge, lightly sour flavor despite just 4 percent alcohol)
O'Fallon Pumpkin Beer (Sweet, but balanced by strong elements of clove and cinnamon)
Sam Adams Fat Jack (Pumpkin pie in a bottle)
St. Ambroise Pumpkin (The most effervescent beer on this list)
Tyranena Painted Ladies (A nice fall punch in its caramel-malt body)
Uinta Punk'n (Reminds us more of plums than pumpkins)
Ace Hard Pumpkin Cider (Tastes like cider; where's the pumpkin?)
Arcadia Jaw-Jacker (Strong spice makes it better than average — barely)
Cisco Brewers Pumple Drumkin (Like many of the lighter entries, not quite enough going on)
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (Tastes bitter more than fall-like)
Wild Onion Pumpkin Ale (Strong spice that tapers off before doing anything interesting)
Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale (Relatively balanced, but flavor an afterthought)
Post Road Pumpkin Ale (Boring and bitter)
Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin (Label calls it an "ale with natural flavors" without specifying the ingredients; there's likely a reason for that)
Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat (Relatively inoffensive, as expected)
Southern Tier Pumking (Many pumpkin beer aficionados love it; we found it too sweet and cloying)