SUP DUDES IT'S FALL, which means it’s the official season of Pumpkin Spiced ™ everything, which also means it’s the season of pumpkin beer, which, then, means the invariable backlash to pumpkin beer. Case in point: The pitch for this story—and the ensuing debate over the merits, or lack thereof, of pumpkin-flavored things—has provoked a heated and protracted argument among San Francisco staffers that will probably end in someone’s tires getting slashed or something. Last month, when BeerAdvocate retweeted a joke by Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Export Director, Jon Bryan, that likened pumpkin beer to “the modern day equivalent of the mullet. Everybody that brewed one will be ashamed of it in a decade,” it provoked a heated debate (at least by Buzzfeed’s standards) that ultimately ended in BeerAdvocate being forced to issue a mea culpa. Over a tweet about beer.
Dave McLean gets it, kind of. The owner and brewmaster of Magnolia Brewery, which has been producing its Barking Pumpkin ale for years, acknowledges that pumpkin beer can occasionally get a bit of a bad rap. “There’s an oversaturation thing going on,” he said. (According to MSN, last year’s Great American Beer festival featured 63 pumpkin beers; a decade ago, it was seven.) “But the way I think about it is, is it a good beer or is it not a good beer? It would be crazy to throw out all hoppy beers because everyone’s doing IPAs right now. It would be absurd.”
It doesn’t help that some pumpkin beers really do taste like mildly alcoholic sodas. “Some people just turn it into pumpkin pie in a glass,” he said. “So you need a delicate hand in terms of not overdoing it.” Mission accomplished in the case of Barking Pumpkin (which Magnolia tapped for the first time this year on Tuesday), an English Ale made with a hundred (!!) pounds of Sugar Pie pumpkins, twenty pounds of further-pumpkin-flavor-giving pumpkin seeds, and a responsibly restrained quantity of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and allspice. “We go for the moderately spiced thing,” said Alex Csernay, Magnolia's assistant general manager. “We want people to taste the pumpkin and the spices, but it’s a malt-forward beer, and we do want to let the malt” — heirloom Maris Otter, plus chocolate and crystal malts — “to shine through, too.” The result is, indeed, not too sweet, not too spicy, and gently, gloriously pumpkiny, with a malty beginning and toasty finish, plus a nice heft from the pumpkin and a respectable ABV of 6.7 percent.
“A lot of pumpkin beers just aren’t very balanced,” said McLean. “that’s where some of the criticism comes from. The test is, would I want a second or third glass of this? For me, I would.” Us too.