The Divided States of Pumpkin Spicelandia

We live in a time of fake news, alternative facts and a nation so bisected that as we hurtle helplessly through the autumn and a hostile election season, the only topic more divisive than “who do you want to be president?” is most likely “do you like pumpkin stuff?”

Maybe it started with the latte, who knows.  But the seasonal pumpkin invasion soon infiltrated supermarket borders, claiming for its own once solidly chocolate dessert territories like cookies, ice cream and pudding.  As tyrants are seldom content to stand pat, the great pumpkin oppressive would march on to claim key alcohol enclaves, with stalwarts schnapps, rum and vodka the next to fall.  

Would beer be conquered by the pumpkin, as well?  Or is pumpkin flavor actually invigorating our fatigued taste buds and should be treated as liberators instead of invaders?

~~~ lists almost 1,800 beers as “pumpkin”, with scores predictably ranging from a perfect five to a perfectly bare and uninhabited zero, a range frustratingly appropriate for pumpkin flavor.  I don’t know that I would go so far as to equate pumpkin beer with prison wine, as my intrepid colleague did recently in this piece for Barley Prose, but I generally put up a spirited defense against the three-flank holiday pumpkin spice attack of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. 

Biases are learned behaviors, and to tear them down, it often takes an experience that hits close to home to shake foundational beliefs and make you see something with new eyes and a different clarity.  

Meet the Pumpkin Noir Spiced Ale by Marble Brewery in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The description on the can reads “Our lady of darkness always chooses the burnt slice of pumpkin pie.  Heads have been known to roll around here until we achieve the perfect balance of carbonized fruit, delicate spice and velvet viscosity.”  

A lot to chew on there.  

The Pumpkin Noir is an annual seasonal and this year’s version checks in at 8% ABV on the nose, and pours a deep, spooky black with a creamy and frothy head.  As we saw in the supermarket usurpation, pumpkin spices invade in the fall and with the dessert territories already conquered, it was wise to attack the cold-weather beers, typically dark and malty stouts and ales.  

The aroma of the Pumpkin Noir is a strong amalgam of the pumpkin spices, but the taste is more subtle.  It starts like a porter but with a nice spice on the tongue (from the ginger?).  It’s a full beer, warm and comfortingly boozy, but not heavy-handed with unnecessary pumpkinry. 

The verdict?  This beer is damn good. It’s delicious. 

So what’s the lesson here?  That the pumpkin faction were right all along?  Maybe not.  Pumpkin for the sake of pumpkin, you know, pumpkin spice Pringles, chicken sausage and PSL pasta sauce (!?) is a marketing cash-grab directly targeting the nostalgic, autumn-loving Starbucks drinkers.

But a pumpkin-flavored beer made thoughtfully by a brewer whose creations you love and trust can maybe be a different story altogether.  We can still hate with all our guts and vitriol one another’s stances on things as polarizing as pumpkin flavor, but maybe we should just shut up, try a pumpkin beer and remember the lesson Edwin Starr tried to impart on us: “War, what is it good for?”.