The Great Pumpkin Ale emerges — all hail the great pumpkin ale….
Rating: 90 points
Stats: Spiced Beer. 5.5% ABV. Etobicoke, Ontario.
Size: 650mL bottle
Colour: Deep straw, golden
Mouth Feel: Medium carbonation; clean, bitter and refreshing finish.
Pairing Notes: Green curry.
And so the field narrows and it comes to a point as I complete my seasonal quest for the best pumpkin ale available here in Ottawa. I’m sure I have missed a few but if I did, it’s only because I wasn’t going to lift every rock in my search — so yes, a sample of four isn’t definitive but it is still a fair competition. Let’s see if I can’t improve on that next year — so, if you have a better suggestion yourself, I’d love to hear it. And thus in my own Game of Thrones race, there can only be one ….
I’ll admit that this was a bit of a strange competition because it wasn’t exactly blind and I picked two I had previously had which I knew I loved already. Still, as critical as I am in these reviews, I’m certainly open minded and in my mind the field was still open for those other two newcomers to wow me. As you’ve seen one clearly disappointed and the other put in a very strong showing through some nice qualities with respect to pumpkin flavour and balance. Nevertheless, that really meant the competition was coming down McAuslan vs. Great Lakes — Montreal vs. Toronto. Given I’m a BC lad, I certainly wasn’t going to be picking a favourite based on geography and really who better to arbiter a competition between Montreal and Toronto than a kid from out West?
So the stage was set. Two breweries I love for their products in general. Two beers I new I loved. A short list was on the table. On it, I already knew that McAuslan produced an exceptional beer. I love it and would have no hesitation in recommending it or buying it. The question is, where does Great Lakes rank in this list? Let’s see ….
It pours like so many of these ales with a short-lived head. It does have more bubbles out of the bottle, however, and is the least natural in terms of carbonation. Still, where other beers fell short for their flatness against the malts, Great Lakes has a delicious mouthfeel which I think is buttressed perfectly with an ideal 5.5% ABV. This feels like a beer drinkers beer, and it has my respect. Why this works is because since most of the beers are light on the malts with considerable wheat backbones, they have proven to be non-existent upfront. This beer, balanced with carbonation and some weight fills the mouth before the flavours have kicked in as they did with all four ales I sampled: that pumpkin ale sweet-spot, the middle.
Off the nose, there are some light yeast aromas a wee bit of spice. Not over the top, but definitely there. The colour is light and compares well with the Grand River’s Highballer for its straw colour. There is nothing wrong with the colour — the question is what do you think better represents pumpkin ale: blonde or amber? Personally, I think amber which gives the nudge to McAuslan and its deeper malts. Having said that, this beer doesn’t suffer for lack of flavour, so I’m going to leave the jury out on colour still as I’m not sure it makes a real difference to this style.
So far, then, the race is likely neck and neck but with McAuslan in the lead … but the final stretch includes two massive jumps that will separate the winner from the runner up: spicing and pumpkin.
The spicing is the razor’s edge in the pumpkin ale chase. It is the thing that people screw up but which they can control. It’s the difference between the cook who puts too much salt in the soup and the chef that constructs a dish the relies on deeper flavour structures. If I was to air on one side in this experiment it would be to say less is more — the spice is an accent to the beer, it isn’t the beer. Pumpkin pie should taste like pumpkin, not spices. The same is true of a pumpkin latte … or pumpkin ale. When GLB (no, that’s not gay lesbian bi — it’s Great Lakes Brewery) says they want ‘hints’ of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice, they’ve clearly executed their vision. All are present and all in the layer of ‘hint.’ In my opinion, this is the standard for spicing a pumpkin ale … and with that GLB pulls ahead.
The final turn is the pumpkin … which one is better? As I say, the point of a pumpkin ale isn’t the spices, it’s keeping the throttle off the spices and letting the pumpkin taste actually shine through. And in that quest, GLB is the clear winner. Everything else about this beer sets up that moment where you arrive at the finish line and taste pumpkin. That’s what I loved about this beer when I first tasted it four years ago — and it’s why I buy it every year. It’s why I store it up, even, and keep bottles through to Christmas if I can show willpower.
In this case, by luck and not by design, I’ve saved the best for last and, by a clear few horses, this is the best pumpkin ale I’ve yet to taste. All hail the great pumpkin ale ~ Great Lakes Brewery is the king.