Is it just me, or has the pumpkin-flavored-everything craze gotten a little out of hand? It seems you’re either on the pumpkin-giddy team or not; and if you’re like me, you just don’t go bonkers for every pumpkin pie-spiced food and beverage that comes down the pike—including pumpkin beer.
But when my friends April and Janet donned their orange attire and headed south to Seattle for Elysian Brewing Company’s Great Pumpkin Beer Fest, I got to thinking that I should at least see what all the fuss was about. They inspired me to try it, and now, I don’t know what took me so long.
Pumpkin beers are a reflection of craft brews in general—there is one for everyone, whether you prefer a dark stout or porter, a saison, a maltier ale or a sweeter taste. And as our brewed beverage options in Bellingham continue to expand, we have the chance to experiment with more local, regional and far-flung breweries’ pumpkin offerings, mostly fresh on tap, but also by the bottle.
My first taste test was at Kulshan Brewing, on the day they released not one, but two versions of their Horseman’s Head Pumpkin Ale: spiced and non-spiced. “Let’s try both!” I exclaimed. Kulshan has brewed HH since they opened, but because I wasn’t a pumpkin-ale kind of girl, I never tried it—a grievous error on my part, I now admit. I liked the spiced version, with its hint of nutmeg, but for my first foray into the pumpkin ale world, I preferred the non-spiced. One step at a time!
Kulshan’s brew was made with Bellewood Acres pumpkins, roasted in Goat Mountain Pizza’s mobile oven. Now, I wouldn’t say I’d know the Horseman’s Head was a pumpkin ale based on taste alone. It was rich, mellow and smooth, and malty on the nose. Maybe a bit of sweetness from the pumpkin. But then again, what does pumpkin taste like? Squash-y. It’s the pie spices we associate with pumpkin flavor, and each of the other pumpkin beers I tried featured cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, allspice or a combination of them, so it was nice to try one without. It’s like when your mom snuck zucchini into her chocolate cake—you can’t really taste it. That said, the unspiced Horseman’s Head was a really nice ale for the season. I loved it.
That day, Kulshan also released a special 16-month old Imperial Russian Stout that I had to try. After all, they’ve been sitting on it practically since they opened. It’s definitely an “oh boy” beer—super rich, but not heavy. It was nice and roasty, tasting of toffee and burnt sugar—crème brûlée, anyone? At 10% ABV, this one is on the strong side. Walk home, my friends.
Next up was a trip to Wander Brewing with my friend, April—the pumpkin beer expert. We had one mission: try Wander’s PumpFest Pumpkin Ale. This one was a contrast to Kulshan’s, with a bright amber color, nicely balanced with a definite sprinkle of cinnamon. At 6.5% ABV, it’s a quaffable brew for pumpkin beer lovers.
Wander was also serving their Fresh Hop IPA. Brewed with 120 pounds of fresh El Dorado hops picked the day before the brew, it’s a once-a-year taste treat. And the taste was great—bright and hoppy, nicely bitter but not too. And just to experiment, after a few sips of the fresh hop, we sipped the PumpFest again, and the sweetness really came out.
April had suggested I try a few of Elysian’s pumpkin beers, since they are “the gold standard.” So, I picked up the Night Owl Pumpkin Ale and the Dark O’ the Moon Pumpkin Stout at Elizabeth Station, where I had stopped to have a pint of Southern Tier Brewing’s Pumking. Since I’m from the Southern Tier (of New York State) I had to give the home boys some love. And if you love cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, plus a shot of vanilla, this one’s for you.
It wasn’t my favorite, so I replaced it with a pint I knew I would love: a special brew by Eric Jorgensen and Steve DeMoney of North Fork Brewery and Wander Brewing, respectively. Steve and Eric’s Neat Beer is a whiskey-barrel-aged Baltic Porter. Which is not a pumpkin beer. But trust me, if you had a chance to try this, you would have, too.
And gluten-free folks need not feel left out. Elizabeth Station is also pouring Ace Pumpkin Cider. It wasn’t as dry as I prefer, but if you like your cider on the sweet side, you’re in luck with this one. And just to round things out, I walked down the hill to grab a taste of Chuckanut Brewery’s Coffee Porter (made with Bean Stop coffee) which was fantastic. Again, not a pumpkin beer. But so worth making a trip to Chuckanut for—if you like porters, go get yourself one before it’s gone!
The next evening, I sampled both Elysians: the Night Owl and the Dark O’ the Moon. Even my husband, who doesn’t love spiced beers, enjoyed the Night Owl. The pie spices were definitely represented, but not overwhelmingly so, and they didn’t detract from the flavor of the beer. I liked the Dark O’ the Moon as well, especially as it warmed up a bit.
If you’re ready to try a pumpkin ale, or if you already know you love them, then take my advice and hurry. They are going fast, and even those I tasted last week may not be around any longer. Colleen and Chad at Wander said they were getting low on PumpFest, but would probably hold some back for Halloween. Elizabeth Station and McKay’s Taphouse each had at least one on tap as of today, but check their lists at BeerMenus.com to be sure. ES and Haggen both have good selections of bottled pumpkin beers (for now).
So now that I’m officially a pumpkin beer fan, I can’t help but ask: does Bellingham need a Pumpkin Beer Festival? Maybe just a little one? It’s food for thought!