Like kids who look forward to the loot of candy they’ll collect trick-or-treating, every fall we get excited about pumpkin ale season. With their warm orange colors and autumnal spices, a good pumpkin ale is like fall in a glass. Like the hundreds of pumpkin-flavored products that line supermarket shelves, some pumpkin beers are more about marketing than anything else, but there are also some savory gems that truly stand out.
Pumpkins have a long history when it comes to American beer, having been used as a substitute for the barley colonists had greater access to on the other side of the pond. While pumpkins were a very real ingredient, the pumpkin pie flavor we love today would not have been found in the 1700 and 1800s, and it didn’t emerge until Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in California first rolled out their pumpkin ale in the mid-1980s. As pumpkins don’t have much of a flavor on their own, some breweries don’t even use them in their “pumpkin beer.”
Over the years we’ve tried dozens of pumpkin beers, slowly narrowing down the ones we continue to buy and weeding out the ones we steer clear of. Like wine, it all comes down to personal preference, and even between the two of us we have differing opinions. With that said, the five pumpkin beers below are ones that we highly recommend trying. Each is unique, with different dominant flavors that run the gamut from sweet spices to earthy squash. Enjoy!
Elysian Brewing Company, The Great Pumpkin, Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8.4% ABV, 20 IBU, 22 oz bottles)
With a strong pumpkin flavor and a nice blend of fall spices (nutmeg, cloves, and allspice), this was our hands-down favorite. If you’re looking for the quintessential pumpkin ale, this is it.
Southern Tier Brewing Company, Pumpking, Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8.6% ABV, 30 IBU, 12 oz bottles)
Lakewood, New York
If you want to taste the pumpkin, this is your beer. While the spices are still there, they’re a bit more subtle.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Rum Barrel Pumpkin, Barrel Aged Farmhouse Ale/Saison (12.3% ABV, 21 IBU, 22 oz bottles)
The dominant flavor in this one is definitely rum, which is imparted from the months it spends in Caribbean dark rum barrels. While the pumpkin and spice flavors take a backseat to the rum, this beer feels like a celebration. And considering the high alcohol content, after a glass or two it is!
Schlafly/The Saint Louis Brewery, Pumpkin Ale (8.0% ABV, 16 IBU, 12 oz bottles)
Saint Louis, Missouri
The spices are the driving force of this beer, with heavy notes of cinnamon. This was also the sweetest of the batch… as the brewery notes, it tastes “like a slice of pie in a bottle.”
Hysteria Brewing Company, Pressured Into It, Pumpkin Ale (6.5% ABV, 20 IBU, 12 oz cans)
This beer was a bit hoppy, with subdued pumpkin and spice flavors. This would be a good pick for someone who isn’t normally keen on pumpkin beers but is game for having some festive fall fun.