It’s finally October, which means you’re now free to bust out your 12-foot Home Depot skeleton, stream your favorite scary movies and listen to “The Monster Mash” on repeat sans judgement. And of course, it means beer aisles nationwide are currently stocked to the gills with a truly spooky number of pumpkin brews.
Pumpkin beer is an extremely divisive style, however. Some folks who clamor for pumpkin-spiced everything this time of year will stock up on as much of it as they can (often as early as August, thanks to seasonal creep) to celebrate the season, while it has others whose palates can only handle so many pie-flavored beers running for the hills in horror. Here at InsideHook, we’ve got staffers on both sides of the Great Pumpkin Beer Divide, so we decided to team up for a tasting to see whether we could find a beer brewed with the orange gourd that we could all get behind. Is there a pumpkin beer out there that appeals to enthusiasts and skeptics alike?
To find out, seven of us tasted 21 of the best pumpkin beers we could get our hands on and individually assigned each one a score between zero and five. We tallied up each beer’s overall score (out of a possible 35 points) to determine our overall ranking. Some were extremely impressive, while others tasted like some sort of cruel Halloween prank. Check out how each one fared below.
21. DuClaw 31 Pumpkin Spiced Lager (6.5 points)
Getting all seven of our tasters — pumpkin-lovers and gourd-haters alike — to agree on a beer was nearly impossible, but unfortunately for DuClaw, we were all aligned on this one. No one rated it above a 2 out of 5, putting it firmly in last place. Ultimately, it was hard to pick up on any real pumpkin here, and weirdly, five out of seven tasters noted an odd coffee flavor. That’s strange, given that it’s unintentional and there’s not a bean to be found in it; how is it that a beer brewed with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice and pumpkin winds up tasting more like your morning cup of joe than pumpkin pie?
20. Blue Point Big Mother Pumpkin (8 points)
This New York brewery’s imperial pumpkin ale elicited the strongest responses of all the beers we tasted — and not in a good way. It has a weirdly floral, perfume-y flavor and an upsettingly strong nose that earned it comments like “Literally WTF,” “Tastes like cologne,” “Undrinkable,” and the admittedly broad “Life sucks.” Its only saving grace was the one taster who not only liked it, but ranked it a 5 out of 5, praising its “cinnamon-y, dessert-y” flavor and sparing it from last place on our rankings.
19. Left Hand Brewing Pumpkin Spice Latte Nitro (9.5 points)
In theory, using a nitro head to replicate the foam of a pumpkin spiced latte is a clever idea, but Left Hand’s brew — which blends cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, coffee, pumpkin and lactose — wasn’t quite able to live up to its promise. Our tasters mostly agreed it has a very pleasant coffee nose (though one wrote that it “smells like the spice drawer”), but they found it to be too flat and too thin. Several picked up on a lingering bitterness that made for a disappointing aftertaste as well.
18. Elysian Chucky: A Killer Wit Beer (11 points)
This pumpkin witbier incorporates cranberry juice into its recipe as a nod to the blood spilt by the killer doll it takes its name from, but you can barely taste the cranberry in the beer itself — or not much else, for that matter. Most of our tasters found it to be thin and flavorless, but another who picked up on the cranberry and pumpkin lamented the fact that those two flavors didn’t mix together very well. One questioned whether or not we had somehow received an old can; several picked up on a rather unpleasant nose (“smells like dirty socks,” one wrote).
17. Two Roads Roadsmary’s Baby (15 points)
Roadsmary’s Baby earned rave reviews from our tasters for its clever can, which features a grinning jack-o-lantern face on the silhouette of a baby carriage, but there were no style points awarded in this ranking, and unfortunately the beer itself got pretty mediocre feedback. It’s aged in rum barrels, but its rum and vanilla flavors didn’t come through as strongly as one would have hoped. As one of our tasters wrote, “Good beer, but no real feelings one way or the other.”
16. Montauk Pumpkin Ale (16 points)
Montauk’s pumpkin offering was arguably the most middle-of-the-road of all the beers we sampled. It was inoffensive to almost all of our tasters (except for our resident pumpkin hater, who wrote simply, “Make it stop”), but no one was particularly wowed by it either. Instead, it earned comments like “fine,” “average,” “solid enough,” and “whatever.”
15. UFO Pumpkin (17 points)
UFO’s pumpkin hefeweizen stands out as one of the rare pumpkin beers that doesn’t try to taste like pumpkin pie. Instead of simply dumping an entire spice rack into it and calling it a day, they brew it with real pumpkin puree, giving it a light, crisp flavor that you don’t often see with pumpkin beers. Some of our tasters found it to be unremarkable, but others heralded it as “a much-needed reset” after a sea of overly spiced brews.
12 (three-way tie). Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (21 points)
This St. Louis brewery’s Pumpkin Ale was one of the more divisive on this list; our tasters either loved it or hated it, depending entirely on how they feel about the classic pumpkin pie spice profile. Those who don’t mind that loved it and awarded it high marks, but others found it to be cloyingly sweet. One called it “cough syrupy,” while another wrote, “What I think about when I say I hate pumpkin beer.”
12 (three-way tie). Lexington Brewing Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale (21 points)
The booziest pumpkin beer we tasted was aged in bourbon barrels, but despite that, it was surprisingly smooth and drinkable. Some of our tasters hoped for more of a pronounced bourbon flavor, while others appreciated the way its nice hint of vanilla complemented the pumpkin.
12 (three-way tie). Captain Lawrence Autumn Blaze Pumpkin Ale (21 points)
Captain Lawrence’s Autumn Blaze is brewed with pureed pumpkins, and it even managed to please our harshest pumpkin critic, who described it as a “mellow version of the genre.” Some found it to be hoppier than all the other pumpkin beers we tasted, and while it failed to rank among our favorites, most found it to be pleasant enough. One taster summed it up by writing, “Don’t hate it. Perhaps a little forgettable.”
10 (tie). Brooklyn Brewing Post Road Pumpkin Ale (21.5 points)
Our tasters agreed that Brooklyn’s Post Road Pumpkin Ale was a perfectly fine beer — “inoffensive,” one wrote, while another praised it for being well-balanced and sessionable — but we had to dock it a few points for its barely perceptible pumpkin flavor. For those of us who prefer just a hint of pumpkin, that was its major selling point. But if you’re a pumpkin purist, this isn’t the beer for you.
10 (tie). Southern Tier Pumking (21.5 points)
This divisive beer’s reputation precedes it; every craft beer fan likely already knows whether they consider it to be the greatest pumpkin beer of all time or a cloyingly sweet, undrinkable nightmare. Which camp you fall into will likely depend on whether the idea of drinking a pumpkin-spiced scented candle sounds appealing to you or not (can you tell I personally was responsible for its lowest score?), but surprisingly, the majority of our tasters rated it highly and only two of us found it to be gross. There’s a weird candy nose to it that I can’t get past, but even I had to admit that I found it to be less disgusting than the last time I tried it. You do you, pumpkin pie freaks.
8 (tie). Saranac Pumpkin Ale (22 points)
Saranac came late enough in our tasting that the previous pumpkin beers had already begun to take their toll, and our notes for it are a little, uh, concise — stuff like “v. good” and “I like.” But though we weren’t feeling especially verbose, none of us found anything wrong with it. One taster described it as “boilerplate,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a very standard, classic pumpkin beer with a nice, natural pumpkin flavor, no cloying spice and a nice finish, and it’s proof that there’s no need to mess with a good thing.
8 (tie). Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (22 points)
As was the case with some other beers on this list, the small amount of pumpkin flavor in Smuttynose’s Pumpkin Ale prompted some of us to rate it highly and others to dock points. “Not too sweet, tastes like a lager with a hint of pumpkin,” wrote one taster. Another described it as “a lager with some nutmeg,” while one likened it to a “seasonal Tecate” and then scribbled “Genius observation” next to their own comment for emphasis. In other words, the pumpkin spice is subtle here — whether or not you find that to be a pro or a con is a matter of personal preference.
7. Elysian Night Owl (22.25 points)
Night Owl is arguably the most well-respected of Elysian’s many popular pumpkin brews, and that held true during our tasting, where the majority of those who sampled it wound up describing it as “classic.” Brewed with pumpkin puree and juice and spiced with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice, it also incorporates both roasted and raw pumpkin seeds into its mash. (For brewing novices, we’re not talking about a graveyard smash here: the mash refers to the mixture that results from combining water with crushed grains at the beginning of the brewing process.)
6. Southern Tier Warlock (22.5 points)
How you feel about this pumpkin imperial stout will likely depend on whether you enjoy the taste of black licorice. Our one taster who can’t stand licorice found this one to be “disgusting,” but by and large, the rest of us loved it (“Delicious!” one wrote) and also picked up on some chocolatey notes as well as a nice, bitter finish. It earned praise for daring to be different than your typical pumpkin beer. As one taster put it, “Stout makes sense for a pumpkin beer.”
5. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (23.75 points)
The brown sugar that Dogfish Head’s popular Punkin Ale is brewed with sets it apart from other pumpkin beers, and even our staunch Halloween hater had to admit that it’s “good for the genre.” (Granted, he followed that up with, “Still undrinkable in any other month of the year,” but hey, you wouldn’t drink a Christmas beer in July either, right?) For the rest of us, however, its caramel maltiness and spicy aroma earned it high marks.
3 (tie). Devils Backbone München On Pumpkin (24 points)
Most pumpkin beers that aim to replicate the flavor of a pumpkin pie tend to do so by focusing on spices, but the genius of Devils Backbone’s München On Pumpkin is that it incorporates the flavor of the pie crust, differentiating it from the pack and giving it biscuity notes and a nice, buttery finish. One naysayer in our group insisted that “Pie crust puree doesn’t belong in beer,” but it earned high praise like “Hell yeah” and “Love it” from the rest of us.
3 (tie). River Horse Hipp-O-Lantern Pumpkin Ale (24 points)
First, a warning: this beer does not drink like it has an 8.1% ABV. It’s smooth and delicious — as one taster wrote, “Surprisingly good, and masks the high ABV. Who knew?!” — but unless you’re committed to being a zombie the next day, you may want to cut yourself off after a couple of these at your Halloween party. (Another taster dubbed it “dangerous in a good way.”) In addition to pumpkin and hand-crushed spices, Hipp-O-Lantern is brewed with molasses, which gives it some nice sweetness and adds some depth.
2. New Belgium Voodoo Atomic Pumpkin (26.25 points)
New Belgium’s Voodoo Atomic Pumpkin is a bit of an outlier. It’s brewed with cinnamon and habanero chili peppers, giving it a spicy kick, and after tasting so many overly sweet beers, it offered some welcome relief. One taster was impressed with the way it “hits the back of the throat,” while another praised its “nice spicy finish” and wrote, “Thank you for giving me a different flavor from pumpkin spice.”
1. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin (28 points)
Our overall favorite earned overwhelmingly high scores for somehow managing to be the platonic ideal of a pumpkin beer — boozy but easy-drinking, spicy but not too spicy, sweet but not cloying. In other words, it’s remarkably well-balanced, something that’s rare with such a polarizing style. “Hides its ABV,” one taster noted. “Is sweet but not overly so. A nice blend of spices. Well-rounded.” Another put it more plainly: “Best pumpkin beer, hands down.”
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