Every week in The Man Who Invented Beer, Adam Cowden runs down the latest in craft beer, with a history lesson for extra flavor.
Come October, drinkers in this country tend to fall into two camps. On one side are the purists, warding off the cold by hoisting steins of clean, unadulterated, often-imported Oktoberfest. On the other are those embracing the colder weather and impending macabre festivities by rushing out to purchase their first case of pumpkin ale. I won’t say which I fall into, but since I covered the Oktoberfest crowd last week, I thought this week would be a good time to move into pumpkin ale territory. And what better way to do so than with the self-proclaimed king of pumpkin beers, Southern Tier’s Pumking!
What’s the story?
As far as I can tell, the “pumpkin ale” beer style is a fairly new concept, emerging along with the U.S. craft beer revolution as a natural consequence of the “put pumpkin in everything” fever that sweeps the nation every October. The only two real unifying characteristics of this style are that a) they are ales (I’ve only ever heard of one pumpkin lager) and b) they use either real pumpkin or pumpkin extract in the mash. It’s generally accepted that those that use real pumpkin (wether whole or pureed) are superior to those who don’t.
Southern Tier’s Pumking actually has a rightful claim to the throne, as it’s currently the top-rated beer in the Pumpkin Ale category on beeradvocate and has a 98/100 on ratebeer. According to the commercial description listed on ratebeer:
Pumking is an ode to Púca, a creature of Celtic folklore, who is both feared and respected by those who believe in it. Púca is said to waylay travelers throughout the night, tossing them on its back, and providing them the ride of their lives, from which they return forever changed. Brewed in the spirit of All Hallows Eve, a time of the year when spirits can make contact with the physical world and when magic is most potent. Pour Pumking into a goblet and allow it’s alluring spirit to overflow. As spicy aromas present themselves, let it’s deep copper color entrance you as your journey into this mystical brew has just begun. As the first drops touch your tongue a magical spell will bewitch your taste buds making it difficult to escape the Pumking.
Not sure why Southern Tier decided to bundle in that bit of Celtic mythology along with the otherwise Halloween-centric marketing, but they are based in New York, so the chances they have someone Irish (or at least, wishing they were Irish) on staff is almost 100%. Southern Tier itself has been in operation since 2002, and has garnered quite a reputation internationally as well as within the States. Today, Southern Tier distributes to over thirty states and parts of Australia, Denmark, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Ontario, British Columbia, and the United Kingdom, and keeping in line with founders Phineas DeMink’s and Allen Yahn’s original intent to revive the art of small-batch brewing, has built a reputation around creative seasonal and limited-edition beers.
Where can I drink it?
This beer is all over Chicago, so you can refer to this beermenus.com search to find your nearest fix. I had mine at The Lion’s Head Pub in Lincoln Park, which was a cool, nice-ish place to watch a game, even though it was also the sort of place that warns you that you can’t go to the upstairs with those sandals (and yeah, that did actually happen).
What does it taste like?
This is, so far, the only pumpkin/harvest ale I’ve tasted that can justifiably claim any affinity with pumpkin pie. Most “pumpkin beers” have a sort of unpleasantly earthy, dirty, raw-pumpkin-y aspect, and seem to forget that there are many other ingredients involved in that pleasant pumpkin pie taste than solely pumpkin. Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and, of course, sugar are all involved in the familiar recipe, and happily, these all show up in Pumking, along with a healthy dose of vanilla and whipped cream. If you paid attention to the earlier video, you might have noticed that the spices are added post-fermentation. It’s my suspicion that this has a lot to do with how prominently they figure in the final product, but I am by no means the final authority on the matter.
Either way, the beer’s nose is replete with these spices, along with a healthy dose of the alcohol. The pumpkin really shows up in the beer’s body, just barely pushing it’s way past the overwhelming vanilla sweetness and spices themselves. And this is how it should be; just as in pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, the pumpkin is more of a perfect pairing to the sweetness than a main feature. The malt base of the beer is hardly noticeable, though you can definitely pick out the toasty grain if you try hard enough. In terms of aftertaste, it’s all about the alcoholp, and then the lingering taste of pumpkin and spices after the heat dissipates.
Pumking’s beer page lists the carbonation as “medium,” but it definitely doesn’t seem that way. Whether due to the high alcohol content or the bouquet of spices, Pumking has that tickly, champagne-like mouthfeel along with a considerable dose of heat reminiscent of a dessert wine. Come to think of it, drinking Pumking is actually more like drinking a dessert wine than anything else. Small sips are the name of the game, and the beer’s potent taste is the sort that spreads from the base of your tongue and envelops your entire mouth. Try gulping it, and you’ll find yourself with that familiar taste-bud overload grimace…and an upset stomach.
Should I try it?
I had very mixed feelings about this beer. On the one hand, it was absolutely delectable. On the other hand, it’s almost too delectable. Huh? Yes, beer is supposed to be great tasting (and typically, the better the beer tastes, the better the beer), but there are other things a beer should be too. Namely: refreshing, drinkable, and distinct from pumpkin-spice flavored schnapps. While Southern Tier’s Pumpking is definitely distinguishable from (and much better than) this last item, it does contain an element of nauseating sweetness that prevents it from being refreshing — or pleasurable to drink more than one or two of — in any way. Like a Pixy Stick in your trick-or-treat bag, it’s a treasure, but one you’d best not overdo if you’d like to keep the rest of the candy down.
But yes, have it.