Monday, September 22, 2014

Showdown! Pumpkin beers

pumpkinbeers
About a year ago, I had some friends over to judge 12 macro lagers using BJCP score sheets (but not to BJCP styles, strictly to personal preference). It was a lot of fun and educational for everyone involved. I decided to host another “showdown” again this year, but this time I thought it would be a lot more fun to do it with pumpkin beers. I’ve always been a fan of the style, and there’s a few pumpkin brews I’d consider among my all-time personal favorites. I wanted to see how they would hold up in the context of a blind tasting.

Actually, it wasn’t a blind tasting for me, since I bought all the beer, hosted the gathering, and stewarded. So I always knew exactly what I was drinking, but the other five people on the panel did not. Speaking of which, let’s meet them:
  • Alex and Piper are local craft beer enthusiasts; you’ve probably seen them at The Ruck, City Beer Hall or Madison Pour House. Alex is also an experienced homebrewer and a fellow member of Albany Brew Crafters homebrew club.
  • Eric is both a longtime homebrewer and craft beer drinker. He kindly printed up the BJCP score sheets (thanks, man!). This was his first time doing any kind of blind tasting or judging, though.
  • Renee is my girlfriend, whom I’ve written about quite often this summer. She’s a newbie to the craft beer world, but she is already starting to hone her palate. Heck, she even judged at The Ruck’s homebrew competition this summer.
  • John is my brother, who is rather indifferent to craft beer in general. This is not his first time doing a blind tasting, though. He was on the Great Macro Lager Showdown of 2013 panel as well.
Originally, I wasn’t going to participate in the tasting at all. However, a couple people who had RSVP’ed as “maybe” dropped out, and since we had an extra seat I decided to judge. I thought it would be interesting to see how my scores would compare with the rest of the panel. All of these beers I’ve reviewed on my blog. I deliberately bought some that I rated high and some that I rated low to see if the others would agree with me. I also wanted to include a macro brew to see how it would fare against the craft beers (in retrospect, I should’ve included two macro brews).

NOTE: The beers were NOT graded to BJCP style or relative to each other. I told everyone to judge each beer in and of itself (personal preference). We weren’t getting hung up on technical merit unless a beer had a glaring flaw. This wasn’t meant to be a formal beer judging.

Here’s the order in which the beers were tasted:
  1. Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat
  2. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
  3. Lakefront Pumpkin Lager
  4. Saranac Pumpkin Ale
  5. Cisco Pumple Drumkin
  6. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
  7. Post Road Pumpkin Ale
  8. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
  9. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
  10. Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale
  11. Anderson Valley Fall Hornin’
  12. Southern Tier Pumking
  13. Uinta Punk’n
And here’s the order in which they placed (from worst to first):

NOTE: click on the pictures to see a higher resolution version.

13. Cisco Pumple Drumkin
ciscopumpledrumkin
By far, the worst beer of the group. I reviewed this last year and was not impressed, but this time around it was just plain bad. As you can see by the scores it received, the rest of the panel agreed with me. It scored the lowest in the aroma, flavor, overall, and total categories (and just plain average on appearance). The biggest complaint was that it had no real “pumpkin” taste at all, and there did seem to be some DMS-like off flavors. Cisco is a brewery I have not been impressed with.

12. Post Road Pumpkin Ale
postroadpumpkinale
I was quite taken aback by how lowed this beer scored. Usually, it’s a middle-of-the-road pumpkin beer that is inoffensive, but unimpressive. This also seemed to have a bit of an off-flavor to it, but not as bad as the Cisco. What’s interesting is that this beer is brewed by Saranac under contract for Brooklyn Brewing.

11. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
dogfishheadpunkinale
I actually was not surprised by how low this beer scored, though everyone else on the panel was (as I’ll bet a lot of you readers are). I first tried this back in 2008 and thought it was only okay at best. It really didn’t come off as either a brown ale or a pumpkin beer to me as it seemed to be missing the key characteristics of both styles. And what’s up with that new label? Yeesh!

10. Saranac Pumpkin Ale
saranacpumpkinale
If you know me, you know I’m a fan of Saranac. I’m not saying their beers are World Class across the board, but most of what they make is at least pretty good. Their pumpkin ale had always been one of my favorites of the style until the last few years. It used to be a potpourri bomb, now it’s just very “squashy” (pumpkin is essentially squash, after all). Compared to all the other beers in the flight, this was pretty weak sauce. Interestingly enough, it was the only beer of the 13 to receive a 3 out of 3 on appearance by the entire panel, and also scored statistically average on aroma and mouthfeel.

9. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
smuttynosepumpkinale
I haven’t had this beer in a while, and I never realized that it drinks like a standard pale ale with minor pumpkin spices added. In fact, many of the panel member remarked at how hoppy the beer was and that if they were to judge as a pale ale they would’ve rated it much higher. I don’t think it’s a bad beer at all, but it’s just not a great pumpkin beer.

8. Uinta Punk’n
uintapunkn
This was literally a last-minute addition to the showdown, and I’m glad it was included since the results really shocked me. I reviewed this beer last year and I thought it was abysmal; in fact, it made my Top 10 Worst Beers of 2013 list. Maybe they revamped the recipe this year or I had a bad bottle at the time. Either way, it scored much higher than I was expecting, and at an average score of 30.33 it was almost exactly statistically average.

7. Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin
shipyardsmashedpumpkin
A lot of people compare this beer to Southern Tier Pumking, and I can see why – it’s very sweet and does have a pumpkin pie taste. I hadn’t drank this beer since 2009, so I gave it a re-review a couple weeks ago. It was good, but I thought it tasted like pumpkin soda rather than pumpkin beer. I was genuinely surprised that this did not score higher since a lot of people tend to enjoy the sweet pumpkin spices. I think John’s low score brought down the entire average.

6. Lakefront Pumpkin Lager
lakefrontpumpkinlager
Of all the beers in the showdown, I think this one was the most divisive. Eric, John, and Renee all seemed to really like it, but Alex, Piper and I thought it was only okay. This was the only lager of the group (though the rest of the panel didn’t know that), but it drank like a pretty standard pumpkin ale. Probably a good introductory pumpkin beer for BMC drinkers.

5. Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale
samueladamsharvestpumpkinale
Say what you want about Samuel Adams as a craft beer brewery (or lack thereof), but I find when their beers are pitted against others in a blind tasting, they tend to score surprisingly high and this is evidence of that. I figured it would’ve been in the bottom half, but just about everyone thought it was good to very good.

4. Shocktop Pumpkin Wheat
shocktoppumpkinwheat
I purposely chose to use this as the first beer of the day as I know the opening entry usually tends to score higher than average since no baseline has been established. I figured since it was an A-B/InBev product it would score low, so putting it first would balance it out. Everyone said it was okay, though it didn’t seem particularly “pumpkiny”. I can’t help but wonder how this would’ve scored had it been closer to the end.

3. Anderson Valley Fall Hornin’
andersonvalleyfallhornin
Though it clearly indicates it’s a pumpkin beer on the label, this comes across more as a standard autumn seasonal. It opts more for potpourri-like spices, rather than pumpkin pie sweetness. It’s also extremely dark in color for a pumpkin beer.

2. Southern Tier Pumking
southerntierpumking
This has been my favorite pumpkin beer for the last five years (and one of my favorite beers in general, actually). I saved this for the final beer of the tasting (originally) because it tends to be enjoyed by everyone and it’s so robust that it would probably overpower any palate fatigue the panel was feeling by then. And while I thought it was excellent as always, it did seem a little simple. It’s also rather boozy and it never holds a head. Everyone agreed it was the best smelling brew of the day.

1. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale

weyerbacherimperialpumpkinale
If Pumking is the best of the “pumpkin pie beers,” then this is the best of the “pumpkin potpourri beers.” It was towards the middle of the flight and it was a welcome relief at the time since many of the previous beers had been mild and boring. This was a total spice bomb with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and clove (I got a little mint, too). Not much in the way of actual pumpkin fruit or pumpkin pie sweetness, but it still works great as the fall equivalent of a winter warmer. The entire panel really seemed to enjoy this immensely as it scored the highest in flavor, mouthfeel, overall, and total. And it didn’t just win by a point or a fraction, but a whopping ~4 points higher than the #2 beer. If you haven’t had this yet, I highly recommend picking it up this season.

RECAP:
pumpkinbeersrated


How the reviewers scored:
reviewersaverages

One of the most fascinating things about doing a blind tasting is looking how each judge scored on the individual categories. Even though it wasn’t a blind tasting for me, I scored about average on most of the characteristics, and just below average on taste. Alex was by far the stingiest grader on flavor and overall score (which is a funny coincidence because another guy named Alex was also the stingiest grader on the macro lager showdown last year). My brother was the most generous with his grades, which is also surprising considering he’s not a huge craft beer fan in the first place. Eric took his time with each beer and was probably the most meticulous judge, yet he scored statistically average across the board. It’s also interesting that the two ladies, Piper and Renee, tended to score well below (Piper) or well above (Renee) average.

Conclusion
Blind tastings will never cease to amaze me. Almost every single beer surprised me by how it scored and the order in which it placed. The biggest surprise was either Southern Tier Pumking not winning, or Shocktop coming in fourth place. Though, these results would seem to reinforce the theory that people can literally taste the brand name. When you don’t know what you’re drinking, a macro product doesn’t seem to be as bad as you’d think. However, I do think there’s a world of difference in giving a beer a proper review by drinking an entire glass versus just a 2oz sample.

Additionally, I learned that I’m not quite the pumpkin beer fan I thought it was. I was expecting thirteen shots of liquid pumpkin pie, but only a handful of them had that taste. Others were essentially just pale, amber, or brown ales with assorted spices added.

I would highly recommend conducting this experiment on your own with any style and you’ll see just how different beer can taste when it’s juxtaposed to others of a similar palette or style.