The Problem with Pumpkin Beer: A Pseudo-Scientific Study

It is now officially autumn and with kids being back at school, the changing leaves, and the shortening of days – comes pumpkin. It’s everywhere. There is no escaping the influx of pumpkin on all fronts. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice donuts, pumpkin spice Oreos are everywhere the eye can see. It is easy to become flippant towards pumpkins when confronted with the over-saturation of everything with pumpkin flavour, but I do truly enjoy pumpkin. Fall is my favourite season. I like the seeing the leaves change, I enjoy porters and stouts coming back on tap, and sweater weather is the best weather. I lean pretty heavily into everything that fall has to offer, even pumpkin. Pumpkin pie is one of my favourites (this may be down to being able to eat it with one hand while looking in the fridge to see what’s there to make for supper, something that blueberry pie has yet to figure out), I have nothing but fond memories of carving pumpkins (my mom once did Bert and Ernie jack-o’-lanterns, a feat I try to replicate every year), and each year I look forward to roasting pumpkin seeds in my oven and filling the house with the scent of fall, but then there’s pumpkin beer. I have always wanted to like pumpkin beer. It seems like the perfect amalgam of everything I like: beer and fall. The problem is that every time I choose the pumpkin beer off the menu, I am left wanting, and wishing I chose something else. In the name of science I did my best to get rid of my pumpkin prejudice and I tried out two examples of this year’s pumpkin beer lineup.

The first sample I had was at Grizzly Paw Brewing Company in Canmore. I find myself in Canmore a couple times a month, which means I am at Grizzly Paw at least once a month. I love Canmore – and Grizzly Paw. Their food is top notch, as is their beer. I figured if anyone is to have a decent pumpkin beer, it’d be Grizzly Paw. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed. I ordered a pint of Jack-O’-Lantern Pumpkin Ale and hoped for the best. The beer, although very fragrant and full of fall flavour, had very little to do with pumpkins. What comes through, both on the nose and on the palette, is not pumpkin, but spices. It is aromatic, with cloves and warm fall spices, but it has more in common with chai tea than it does with pumpkin. My wife enjoyed it until her food came, then she said the strong spice taste overwhelmed the flavours of her meal. She is more forgiving than I am.

The second sample of pumpkin beer was from Trolley 5 Brewery in Calgary. Again, I had high hopes for this beer because I am familiar with the good beer that Trolley 5 does. Their Hey, Porter is wonderful and their pale ale is an easy-drinking beer that is pleasing on all levels, but their Charlie Brown Pumpkin Ale let me down. It’s not that it tastes bad, just that it lives up to its name a little to well. Just like Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I am left as disappointed, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show its face. The pumpkin flavour is so faint that it might as well not be there at all. This growler of gourd beer doesn’t have the overwhelming fall spices of the Grizzly Paw Jack-O’-Lantern Pumpkin Ale, but it also doesn’t have the pumpkin flavour that you’d hope for when you order a pumpkin beer.

The problem I have with the proliferation of pumpkin beer is that pumpkin just doesn’t make for good beer. I find I give up a lot of carbonation, as well as hop and malt flavour for a faint nose of fall, and that’s not worth it. Pumpkin has its place, but not in beer. It is wonderful in pies, on doorsteps in the fall, and in the delicious cupcakes with cream cheese icing that my wife makes, but not in beer. Whenever I try pumpkin beer I am left with the impression that brewers are trying to shoehorn pumpkin into their beer for the simple reason that that’s what is done at this time of year, and that doesn’t make for good beer. So in the fall, put down the pumpkin beer and pick up a nice porter instead, Ribstone Creek makes a great one. Drink that, you’ll be happy you did.

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