As Canadian Thanksgiving arrives and we sacrifice hundreds of thousand of pumpkins across this fair land as part of our traditional devourment of the greatest pumpkin pies in the country, it seems appropriate that I spend a few days at least contemplating that other pumpkin treat: pumpkin ale.
What makes a great pumpkin ale? And what is the best available this land known as Ottawa? I know, some serious beer drinkers out there are going to disdain the question and my quest, but I for one like a good pumpkin ale. Heck, I like pretty much anything with pumpkin in it and given my love of beer, it seems a match made in heaven … when and if it is done well.
The thing is … it is more often done average or poorly than well. While I’m not a brewer, I do know there are different ways the pumpkin and its flavour can be infused into the beer — but the goal is to extract some of the natural sugars and starches from the pumpkin and use these in the wort to feed the beer and impart flavour. Some brewers do this better than others and you might be surprised how many pumpkin ales don’t actually taste of pumpkin.
Other than missing the mark of the ingredient, where things typically go horribly wrong with a (bad) pumpkin ale is with the spices which more often than not accompany the style. Yes, there is a lot more in common with the pumpkin pie than you thought, especially depending on the malts used in each product. The continuum runs from “pie” beer to pumpkin beer and everything in between. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not adverse to some spice in my beer. My issue is where the spices masquerade as flavour and hide both whatever is actually going on inside the bottle … and what isn’t going on. This is pretty much the problem with Magouille, a beer I reviewed last year.
So this year I quietly gathered up products I could find from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). While I could have cast a wider net, I didn’t have time and I wanted this to be a contest between those beers that are readily available here. I chose four beers, two known entities and two entirely new to me:
- Black Creek Pumpkin Ale
- St-Ambroise Citrouille (Pumpkin)
- Highballer Pumpkin Ale
- Great Lakes Brewing Pumpkin Ale
Join me over the next four days as I review these beers and pronounce the winner of my informal Great Pumpkin Ale Competition. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own reviews of pumpkin ales near you that you think set the definitive standard. Perhaps I’ll be able to include them next year.
The one thing to remember, after all, is that this is typically a seasonal brew and they’re available for short runs … and once the beer is sold, it is gone for another year. And most in Canada sell out long before Halloween.