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Pumpkin Beers: Still Officially the Worst

Jeffrey Wiser, November 01, 2016 -   

It seems like just yesterday that the whole pumpkin beer thing exploded. We've seen more and more pumpkin beers on the market each autumn (even if they don't all sell), and I'll even admit that there was a time that a pumpkin ale seemed like a good idea. Those were dark days for me, and in a moment of personal faith-restoring genius, I wised up and realized that pumpkin ales are actually kind of bad. Despite sampling several dozen over the years, I've yet to find one that makes a lasting impression. I'd rather drink a Biere de Garde if I'm trying to drink in the season of autumn.

But, dumb as it may sound, I decided to make one more attempt -- give pumpkin beers one more try. We happened to stumple upon Killer Pumpkin Fest on Saturday, part of Brewpublic's Killer Beer Week here in Portland. Some adverse weather pushed the event back and the rescheduling paid off as the weather was great and there were plenty of hipsters in attendance. 

Both Rogue and Elysian had a strong presence. Rogue was pouring just two pumpkin beers, but had a 30' inflatable Dead Guy haninging out near their truck while Elysian was pouring eight pumpkin beers and provided some refuge for the Power Rangers on a smoke break.

I tried a handful of beers at the event, including the following:

  • Gourdfather Pumpkin Barleywine (Elysian Brewing, Seattle, WA): .086 BAR
  • Blight Pumpkin Ale (Elysian Brewing, Seattle, WA): 1.41 BAR
  • Punkuccino Coffee Pumpkin Ale (Elysian Brewing, Seattle, WA): 6.01 BAR
  • Dark Pumpkin Ale (Rogue Brewing, Newport, OR): n/a
  • Vanilla Pumpkin Porter (Klamath Basin Brewing, Klamath Falls, OR): n/a
  • Pumpkin Ale (Ancestry Brewing, Tualatin, OR): n/a

Of the lot, the Punkuccino was my favorite, as there was some real coffee presence in the beer. It wasn't overpowering, but blended surprisingly well with the sweet squash notes. I'm not a pumpkin-spice latte guy, but I enjoyed this one more than the others (though I was surprised by the Ancestry offering, which was solid). It's sort of a best-of-a-bad-lot deal, I guess. We made the most of it and quickly moved on to better things. Luckily, that didn't require moving very far, as across the street from Killer Pumpkin Fest was one of Portland's gems: Cascade Brewing's Barrel House.

Redemption came quickly as the offerings at Cascade Brewing were unbelievable. Blended barrel-aged sour ales, a Brambleberry Quad, a 17-month aged Kriek, and even a spiced-apple sour served warm were on the menu. My first beer was a true standout, 2014 Manhattan NW (5.36 BAR, 108 Style+). As described by the brewery itself: "Manhattan NW is a blend of sour quad and blonde ales aged in bourbon barrels with sour pie cherries and apricot noyaux. A tribute to the classic Manhattan cocktail, this fan favorite features flavors of bourbon, maraschino cherries, bitter almond and a hint of malt sweetness." Needless to say, it didn't disappoint.

Cascade Brewing Manhattan NW 2014 (9.6% ABV)

  • Appearance: a sort of bittersweet, or burnt red, not dissimilar from a Manhattan cocktail (4)
  • Smell: the notes of cherry and bourbon are apparent, but there's also a sort of earthiness on the nose (4.25)
  • Taste: obviously tart and sharp, there's cherry, cranberry, blueberry and sweet bourbon oak (4.5)
  • Mouthfeel: it's on the thinner side and is medium-light-bodied, with plenty of lingering sourness (4)
  • Overall: a very complex, nice effort. The sharp sourness gives some way to the oaked bourbon notes, and for someone who loves a good Manhattan cocktail, this sour was a real revelation (4.25)

The rest of the night at Cascade Brewing was much of the same. Their Honey Ginger Lime (4.24 BAR) is a long-time favorite, but this was my first encounter with their 2014 Noyaux (4.07 BAR), Brambleberry Quad (n/a), and a cherry version of Vlad the Imp Aler (3.98 BAR) in a sort of "real ale" state. Up and down the menu, there were seemingly endless opportunities to crack into something new. 

Which makes you wonder why so many people packed into Killer Pumpkin Fest in the first place with Cascade Brewing right across the street. On the one hand, you have a trend that's slowly dying and has been exposed for what it is: not very good beer. If it weren't for Halloween in the first place, we'd have been spared from the whole experiment.

On the other hand, sour beers continue to grow in popularity and it's easy to see why. There's no shortage of ways to manipulate the style without straying too far from a truly enjoyable format. It'll exciting to see how these two beer trends continue to develop over the next several years. For now, do yourself a favor and skip the pumpkin beers (if you haven't already) and grab something truly unique instead.

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