It's fall, which means it’s the official season of Pumpkin Spiced everything. It also means it’s the season of pumpkin beer and the invariable backlash.
Depending on whom you ask, pumpkin beer is either a delicious and seasonally appropriate beverage (that's me!), or a bowdlerized facsimile of beer for people who can't handle the real stuff. (Case in point: This story—and the ensuing debate over the merits, or lack thereof, of pumpkin flavoring—has provoked a heated argument among San Francisco staffers that will probably end in someone’s tires getting slashed.) Either way, pumpkin beer is the rosé of the beer world.
Last month, 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.” A heated debate ensued (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 occasionally deserves its bad rap. “There’s an over-saturation thing going on,” he says. (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 dessert drinks. “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,” says 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 pumpkin-y, 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,” says 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.” Me too.