Pumpkin King: Searching For the Perfect Fall Brew
Posted on October 22nd, 2012
My least favorite thing about the passing of yet another pizza oven summer is all the people who, regardless of how little they know you, will immediately volunteer how upset they are over the coming rains and trench coat weather. Apparently, the secret to happiness is a wardrobe of shorts, the incessant simultaneous hum and dripping of thousands of air conditioners, and the (imagined) benefits of spending the day roasting in Coney Island. It takes all of me not to say, if that’s your idea of a good life, why don’t you move to Florida? We have seasons here and we like it that way.
My favorite things? I’ll spare you the poetic praise of autumn chill, foliage and sweaters and get right to the seasonal beer; specifically, the pumpkin beers that one September day suddenly appear on the row of your local bar’s tap handles. Available only for a couple of months leading up to (and occasionally past) Halloween, these beers are anticipated by any drinker who loves everything with pumpkin as the star ingredient. I am one of those people. When I was a kid, my mother sometimes made me sweet pumpkin puree that I would consume with a spoon, and that’s how it began. Pumpkin cheesecake, bread, muffins, beer – you almost can’t go wrong with that fruit, as far as I’m concerned.
Pumpkin beer wasn’t always the trendy drink that it is today. Until fairly recently, only a few breweries took their pumpkin ales seriously, and you could count on very few places in New York City to dependably serve them each fall. With the proliferation of seasonals and microbrews, and the general rise of beer to the upper echelons of the alcoholic beverage kingdom, the varieties of pumpkin beer seem to have exploded. But all beer was not created equal. (Well, maybe Bud, Coors and Miller were.) Niche pumpkin brews run the gamut from sweet and heavy to crisp with barely detectable fruit notes. In an attempt to zero in on the best varieties, I set out to test the available pumpkin beers in and around Brooklyn.
My search began in a somewhat unlikely place and at first yielded a discouraging result. On one of the first cardigan-worthy days of autumn, I took my girlfriend to Staten Island, mostly for the ferry ride that she hadn’t experienced before. Once there, we walked around the area. The St. George neighborhood by the ferry hadn’t changed much in the seven or so years since I was there last. Despite some condos and a bar or restaurant here and there, the area retains a spooky vibe, with unsavory-looking characters lurking in the spaces between buildings and at bus stops. Its most famous bar/restaurant is 120 Bay Café (formerly Cargo Café); if you’re a St. George hipster, this is where you probably end up once or twice a week. The bar itself is well kept, with a back room for music, nice staff, pretty good bar food and a decent beer list.
120 Bay’s seasonal offering this year is Saranac Pumpkin Ale; the waiter informed us that they just got it in, for the first time ever. The beer is light-bodied and crisp, with an autumnal hue and slightly sour notes. Unfortunately, it does not taste like pumpkin at all: there is no heft to it, no sweetness whatsoever; even the scent is a bit thin. Par for the course, I suppose, as Saranac have yet to impress me. Of all the beers in this article, this is the one to skip.
Heartland Brewery gastropubs are Manhattan mainstays, with the Union Square location the oldest, busiest and best known. They have also become popular tourist and commuter destinations – not a good thing, if your image screams heartland authenticity. However, their signature beers, available on tap only in their establishments, can be quite excellent, and the seasonal pumpkin beers were among the best we found. They also pleasantly surprised us by offering two very distinct pumpkin options, the much-advertised Smiling Pumpkin Ale and the oak aged Imperial Pumpkin Ale.
Smiling Pumpkin Ale, my girlfriend’s favorite of the two, is a medium-bodied brew described on the menu as containing “citrus and wildflower aromas… honey-roasted pumpkins… simmered with ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.” That pretty much covers everything you expect in a good pumpkin beer, and this one isn’t too heavy if you’d like more than a couple of glasses.
My own preference is for the Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which tastes like it sounds: a heavy, not too dark in color beer with a very distinct, somewhat sour pumpkin taste; the menu mentions “bold pumpkin and rum.” This is the sort of brew your taste buds conjure when someone says “craft beer.” Between the two pumpkin offerings, we left satisfied. Sometimes, you don’t need to seek out the road less traveled to get what you were looking for.
The Globe, a dark, very spacious bar on 23rd Street near 3rd Avenue, suffers from one setback: location. I say it is a setback not for lack of patronage: on weekends, it’s reportedly a Blahnik-clad riot. But it does find itself near the long frat parade stretch of 3rd Avenue, where bouncers are forced to demand IDs from anyone who looks to be under 75. Even on a relatively quiet Wednesday night, a suited up gentleman – too inebriated to even stand up properly – came into my line of vision stumbling backwards and bouncing off the bar before crashing on the floor, while his female companion clapped and hooted. The two saving grace factors were my friend, who works in the area (my reason for ending up there) and their seasonal beer, which happens to be pumpkin ale.
The beer has no name; the bartender said it is The Globe’s own ale, and when I tried to pry further, he said it is brewed “by Lionshead”; but The Lion Brewery does not have a pumpkin beer, so the trail went cold there. However, the medium-bodied ale is very praise-worthy: well balanced and not too sweet, its crisp taste loaded with just enough pumpkin flavor. It is actually in many ways on par with Heartland’s Smiling Pumpkin. Should you find yourself if the neighborhood, stop in just for a pint or two, atmosphere be damned.
Back in the relative safety of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Commonwealth – an indie rock-themed not-quite-dive with a back yard, a Dinosaur Jr. tour poster on the wall, two pinball machines, popcorn, WiFi, and a jukebox consisting entirely of owner and staff selections (Pavement! Uncle Tupelo! The Get Up Kids’ cover of The Cure’s “Close To Me”!) – slings Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale. As I approached the bar, I heard the bartender complain to another patron about “all the fruit and nut beers” on tap; when he turned to me, I blurted out, “I’ll take one of those fruit and nut beers!”
As fruit beers go, you could do worse than Smuttynose Pumpkin – if your yardstick is Saranac. A medium-bodied ale so hoppy, you might take it for an IPA, (and admittedly, I am usually not an IPA drinker,) the beer came across as utterly mediocre; and while I can highly recommend the bar, I won’t do the same for its choice of pumpkin brew.
In Brooklyn’s post-industrial Gowanus neighborhood, Lowlands Bar holds court. The bar is usually uncrowded, even on weekends, although a sizeable score of patrons has been known to show up when it hosts musicians playing folk and bluegrass. (It’s not exactly a show, more of a down-home jam session.) There is a charming back yard, WiFi and a stellar selection of beers, including the Southern Tier Imperial Pumking [sic] Ale.
Imperial Pumking is pure joy, if you like your pumpkin ale a little heavy, sweet – almost cake-like – and spicy with a hint of apple. The taste is full-on pumpkin, with more of the fruit’s flavor packed in than in any of the other beers mentioned above. It is currently by far my favorite pumpkin beer, and I always get a pint, while it’s available, when I go to Lowlands to write or work on websites. (Anecdotally, a very good friend of mine who is the biggest beer snob I know – I say this lovingly – recommended Southern Tier to me on a separate occasion; certainly, two refined palates can’t be wrong!)
Food and drink criticism is not objective work. We can speak with certainty of factors like presentation, service, precision of what’s promised on the menu vs. what exits the kitchen on a plate, and physical ingredients; everything else is ultimately subject to palates and preferences. (Someone who likes IPAs, for instance, will probably have a higher opinion of the Smuttynose than I do.) Keep this in mind as you seek out these and other varieties for yourself and build your own list of autumn favorites.