I saw this one on the shelf at Trader Joe’s and had to grab it. I love pumpkin beer and I love barrel aged beer too. What could go wrong? Nothing at all in this case. This beer pours a nice golden copper color with a medium white foamy head. The rye hits you in the aroma, along with some pumpkin pie spice. The flavor has a nice malt backbone with just a hint of resiny hops. Strong notes of both pumpkin pie spice and rye whiskey. I forgot how distinct rye is from other kinds of whiskey. You can really taste the difference in this beer. I wouldn’t say it’s overpowering, but it is a dominant flavor, along with the pumpkin pie spice. It comes in a bomber and carries a 10.5% ABV. It tastes boozy because of the rye too. Don’t plan on driving anywhere right after drinking this one! It packs a punch. Five out of five proper pints.
Yorkshire Stingo is an ale aged in oak barrels that have been reused for over 100 years. The barrels impart significant flavor that varies over time. I had one that was brewed in 2013. It poured a nice light brown color with a medium white head. There were distinct subtle sour cherry notes, along with some slight toffee, raisin and almost a leather kind of feel, but not in a bad way. There were some subtle earthy hop tones as well. The body was lighter than I expected. This was very drinkable and I enjoyed the dark fruitiness. Some people might not care for the light sourness. Also, it’s a little pricey at $11.99 for an 18 oz. bottle. Nevertheless, I enjoyed with some pork chops, which I think go especially well with this beer. I would have it again with pork chops or steak, or some other meaty kind of meal.
While I usually do a round up of 13 pumpkin beers each Fall, this year I am approaching it a little differently. I’m going to recommend my three favorite pumpkin beers of this year. As it turns out, I started out the usual way and sampled 17 pumpkin beers from around the country. So the caveat at the outset is that there are probably more than 100, perhaps a lot more, pumpkin beers around the country and I didn’t try every one. The criteria I used to select the ones I tried is pretty random. I picked common ones that seem pretty easily available and ones I thought I would like. I then decided among those, which I liked best. There are two different strains in pumpkin beers. Those that are simple, e.g, take a brown ale or an amber ale and add some pumpkin and spices to it. And those that are more complex, e.g., take a stout and add pumpkin to it, along with a lot of spices, bump up the alcohol content and age it in bourbon barrels. In a sense it’s a little unfair to compare those different kinds of beer. However, there are some that straddle both categories. Because of that, I feel like it is possible to take a simple pumpkin beer and make it something more special. Of course, the opposite is possible too, take a complex beer and get the balance wrong, and you’ve got an awful mess. Anyway, in no particular order, the pumpkin beers I tried are as follows: Blue Mountain Spooky, Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin, Epic/DC Brau Fermentation Without Representation, Lickinghole Creek Pumpkin Ain’t Easy, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Brooklyn Brewery Post Road, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin, Heavy Seas Great’ER Pumpkin, Aleworks Pumpkin, Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, RJ Rockers Gruntled Pumpkin, New Holland Ichabod, Shipyard Pumpkinhead, Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream, Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, Almanac Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine, Coronado Punk’In Drublic. Most were in bottles I bought and tried at home. The last two I had at the Great American Beer Festival. I don’t really like talking much about ones I don’t like, but for purposes of helping guide you in what to get, I found the Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin, the Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream, the Brooklyn Post Road and the New Holland Ichabod to be in the simple category and they did not bump it up a notch. I would probably avoid them given the breadth of other choices, unless you were buying for someone who is not really into craft beer. Shipyard Pumpkinhead and Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale are examples of beers that are not barrel aged and don’t have lots of crazy ingredients beyond just pumpkin and pie spices, but they really represent something special. I was also happily surprised with the RJ Rockers Gruntled Pumpkin and Aleworks Pumpkin. All three of my favorites, though, fall into the special category where the brewers bumped up the alcohol content, added some special ingredients and/or barrel aged the beer. I hate to be so predictable, but it is hard to avoid. The combination of flavors adds layers of complexity. If I were to expand the list to five, I might have included Pumpkinhead and Punkin Ale. Alas, that was not the way I decided to go. So here we are, the final three…(drum roll)…Number 3 – Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, Number 2 – Heavy Seas Great’ER Pumpkin, and lastly, Number 1 – Almanac Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine. Really I would give all five of the latter five beers I mentioned a rating of five out of five proper pints, but I did like the Almanac the best. Unfortunately, I have not seen it on the East Coast. Of those available on the East Coast, the Heavy Seas Great”ER Pumpkin would win, but the Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin would be close behind.
I went to the Great American Beer Festival for the first time this year (2014) after snagging tickets during the one day that members of the American Homebrewers Association can buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. There are four 3 1/2 hour sessions over a Thursday through Saturday (two sessions on Saturday, including a Members only session during the afternoon). I would have gotten tickets to all four sessions but for the fact that all of them were sold out within about 40 minutes. I managed to get tickets to two of the sessions, Thursday (the opening) and Saturday afternoon, arguably the two most important sessions. It all starts with a huge line that ultimately wraps its way literally all the way around the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. My brother-in-law and I arrived about an hour and a half early for each of the sessions and wound up in about the same place, a respectably short distance from the doors. I would recommend arriving at about the same time, if you have a mind to get any of the hard to find beers, e.g., Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust was gone after about an hour on Thursday. Often the breweries will save some of the rare or high demand beers for later sessions. Fortunately, we did manage to get some of the Zombie Dust on Saturday, but only because we made a bee line for the Three Floyds’ booth as soon as we entered. Nevertheless, my sense was that the Zombie Dust did not quite live up to the hype. Sure, it was a good pale ale. I would probably rate it four, maybe even five proper pints, but still for a beer that people line up for, I might expect something more special. Many of the people who’ve been here before know to bring some kind of food. A lot wear lanyards with pretzels on them. Although there is food available, a lot of people prefer to try and get to as many beers as they can in the time allotted. The mood in the crowd waiting to get in is literally electric. You’ve never seen so many beer geeks with smiles on their faces like they’re about to open the biggest Christmas present ever. Anyway, here is my list of my ten favorite beers that I tried. Keep in mind there were 3,500 different beers and there was no way I could get to all of them in two days, so I apologize if I missed your favorite beer. These aren’t in a particular order, it would be hard to rate them against each other because they are different types of beer. Adroit Theory Fear is Your Only God (Aged in Sauterne Barrels) – This one is a farmhouse/saison style beer bumped up to the imperial level and aged in sauternes wine barrels. Sauternes is a sweet white wine made from Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle grapes. The flavors are strongly complementary. It has a light body with a nice combination of hops and yeast in the aroma. The flavor is slightly bready with a little hop and noticeable yeast flavor with a hint of a light white wine. Not sweet, but light and refreshing. It hides the ABV nicely behind the complex of flavors. The Bruery Tart of Darkness – Wow, this was a knockout combination of dark coffee and chocolate flavors mixed with sour cherry and berry flavors. It was so good I got back in line for another taster. Almanac Heirloom Pumpkin – This one is a pumpkin barleywine aged in brandy barrels. They used 500lbs. of roasted pumpkins to make this one. The result is a face melting combination of pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, caramel, and a little brandy booziness. This may be virtually the perfect pumpkin beer. Epic Big Bad Baptist Stout – This one may be the perfect stout, big brown and dark with strong coffee and bitter dark chocolate notes. An even better way to have it, which one of the kind volunteers at the Epic booth showed us was to mix it with Epic’s Brainless on Cherries. The coffee and bitter chocolate mixed with the sour and cherry flavor of the Brainless is beer nirvana. Firestone Walker XVII – This one is a combination, literally, of 7 different beers. The result is everything dark and good. The flavor is a combination of bourbon, brandy, vanilla, toffee, leather, butterscotch, caramel with a little hop and a little roasty malt and nice warmth from the high ABV. Great Divide Peach Grand Cru – This one may actually have been my overall favorite. It had a really pleasant aroma of yeast and slight peach. It had a nice medium body with an estery flavor from the yeast, a little breadiness along with a little apricot and a hint of peach, not in a way to make it sweet, but more like a mellowing influence. There was also a warming booziness from the 12% ABV. This would make a perfect after dinner beer. Russian River Pliny the Elder – This truly is, in my humble opinion, the best IPA. It pours a beautiful golden color with bright hop aromas of grapefruit and flowers. The taste is a balanced combination of malt backbone with pine, grapefruit, pineapple and a little resin from the hops with a slight twinge of the alcohol. Five out of five proper pints for sure. Hardywood Gingerbread Stout – The perfect Christmas beer. It pours pure black. It has aromas of cinnamon, ginger and clove. It tastes of ginger, bread, cinnamon, honey, vanilla and brown sugar. Very balanced not too sweet, just right. Short’s Whiskey Sour – This one is an interesting one that I’m not sure how to categorize, but I really liked it. It pours an orangey color and smells of citrus, lime especially. It tastes of caramel malt, vanilla, whiskey and lime. I wouldn’t say it tasted exactly like a whiskey sour, but it was pretty close for a beer. Stone Coffee Milk Stout – This one tastes like a cup of iced coffee. It’s not sweet for a milk stout, which can sometimes be problematic for milk stouts. It has strong coffee and dark chocolate notes, but with a light body. It has a nice creamy mouthfeel to it, but with a relatively high level of carbonation. I really enjoyed it and I gather it only has a 4.2% ABV, so you can enjoy more than one without going three sheets to the wind. This may become a yearly tradition.