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commons.wikipediaAh, autumn. The mercury starts dropping along with the leaves, college football is back in full swing, and the young man’s fancy that turned to love in the spring has now turned to bitter resentment. But he and his erstwhile paramour can find solace in the bottles of pumpkin beer that hit store shelves this time of year. Opinions on this style of brew tend to be sharply divided between fans and those who greet any fruit or spiced beers with opprobrium. But the style actually has a long and illustrious history in America, going back to the earliest settlers embracing New World vegetation and using the meat of pumpkins as ersatz malt for fermenting.

Buffalo Bill’s Brewery is generally credited with reviving the pumpkin style early in the craft beer movement, after it had inevitably fallen out of favor once traditional ingredients became more readily available in the US. But theirs tends toward the “pumpkin pie” version of these ales, rather than just “pumpkin” – in fact, the first Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale didn’t even have pumpkin in it. The Brooklyn Brewery, on the other hand, brews their Post Road Pumpkin Ale in the style of the original 18th century founders, attempting to let the gourd speak for itself.

While others weigh in on the Great Pumpkin debates, arguing for or against the style at all, or simply between using pumpkins alone or with spices, I would like to foment another one: ales vs. stouts. Overwhelmingly, pumpkin beers are ales, and while having a light fruitiness which can complement the pumpkin, I find them too light-bodied to carry the weight of the spices they’re asked to bear. Stouts, on the other hand, along with their slightly milder cousins, porters, have the bodies for heavy lifting, and their characteristic roasted malts evoke chocolates and caramels that I think work with the pumpkin better, and certainly with the pie spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves.

The first example I tried this year was one of the first to hit store shelves and bars around Houston, the Punkin Ale from Dogfish Head. Though it’s brewed on a brown ale backbone, I found this offering to be rather light-bodied, with the brown sugars and spices heavily at the fore. It almost struck me as a mulled wine or something that Williams-Sonoma has on the stove during the holiday season to get you to buy more Panettone. The overall balance seemed to pitch forward like an egg on toothpicks.

Some people like that sort of thing, but I prefer these spices on the subtle side, on the sturdy legs of a stout. Saint Arnold first brewed their Imperial Pumpkin Stout as #9 in the Divine Reserve series, back around Thanksgiving of 2009. A big beer at 11% ABV, it was smooth and rich enough that it didn’t have too much alcohol on the nose, in contrast with other big beers like DR10, an English Barleywine. The DR9 got called up to the majors as a regular seasonal brew called Pumpkinator, released October 13. A few tweaks mellowed it out to 10%, though the yield came out less than its original Divine release, which meant the hunt was on yesterday like no other beer in Saint Arnold’s seasonal stable. This was the first 22 oz. bomber bottling Saint Arnold has undertaken, and a few kegs went out as well. Some places, like Petrol Station, are saving theirs for special occasions like anniversary parties, but Anvil Bar & Refuge tapped theirs yesterday, which was brilliant since it allowed me try a tulip of Pumpkinator on release day while saving the bottles I had (finally) acquired earlier for later consumption.

The draft was a rich, dark pour with a thin, coffee-colored head. While still a strong 10%, there was minimal alcohol on the nose. This a full-bodied stout recalling molasses, and the caramel and black malts lent to the round sweetness of the brew, while buttressing the subtle pumpkin spices at the finish, that evoke the fall season without clubbing you in the face with a butternut squash. With one of those bottles waiting in the beer fridge at an ideal 50° to let the spices bloom, this is will definitely make an enjoyable postprandial beverage come Thanksgiving Day. Or, if I can’t wait that long, maybe I’ll just pair it with a pumpkin pie crepe from Melange Creperie.

In the end, whatever your thoughts on pumpkin beers as a style, or whether you prefer ales or stouts, I think most can agree that Saint Arnold has put out a winner with Pumpkinator. While this first release might have been tough to obtain, thankfully, there’s always next year.


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