NORMALLY I don't get around to writing about pumpkin beer till just about the time the Phillies collapse in the playoffs. Something about the brisk air of the changing season brings out the worst in the home team and the best in those spiced amber ales.
Well, the Phils expedited matters this season, and so it seems did America's breweries. It's only mid-August, and local shelves are already filled with once-a-year pumpkin brews.
This early arrival has caused consternation in some circles. Last week, Sixpoint Brewery of New York underscored the grumbling on Twitter, noting, "Any pumpkin beer on shelves now is clearly not made with this year's pumpkin. Pumpkins are not harvested until October or November."
Good point except . . . who cares? Nobody ever drank pumpkin beer for that yummy flavor of freshly plucked gourd. Pumpkin beer is all about pumpkin pie spices - cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cardamom, etc. I say, if the Phillies have already called it a season, then so should you.
Which brings me to my simple rules for enjoying pumpkin beer:
Don't wait till Halloween
Even if you're still digging light and refreshing summer lager, lay in a sixpack or three of these harvest beers, because they'll surely be gone by the time you're ready to enjoy one in October.
Follow the golden rule
Unless you have 20 close friends you'd like to share it with, do not buy an entire case of pumpkin beer. No matter how good it is, you'll be sick of it after four bottles, five tops. And forget about cellaring the leftovers. Outside of a rare few with staying power, the spices tend to fade after about six months. And that's the whole reason you liked the beer in the first place.
Give new beer a chance
Last year, the Lion Brewery joined the fun with little fanfare, debuting its $24-a-case Stegmaier Pumpkin Ale. There wasn't much buzz around its release and I'm sure many beer freaks didn't give it a second glance . . . and they missed the breakout fall seasonal of 2011. I hosted at least five public tastings that featured some serious competition, and the favorite son of upstate Pennsylvania was rated the No. 1 in each.
Who will it be the top newbie of 2012? Because I'm a homer, I'm hoping that scarily named Pumpkinstein from Chester County's Evil Genius is a spine-tingler.
Pop into a brewpub
Dock Street (50th and Baltimore, West Philadelphia) says it'll have its Great Pumpkin on tap by early September. The Iron Hill chain, which pulls out the stops on the style, won't be far behind.
Don't forget the classics
Recipes change and so do palates. But year in, year out, certain brands earn guaranteed raves, including: Southern Tier Pumking, Dogfish Head Punkin, Smuttynose Pumpkin, New Holland Ichabod, Elysian Night Owl and Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin.
Imperial or double pumpkins offer more spice and more buzz. Locally, Weyerbacher, Fegley's Brew Works and River Horse brew them. You'll also find big boys from Cigar City (Tampa), Long Trail (Bridgewaters Corners, Vermont), Heavy Seas (Baltimore) and Sam Adams (Boston).
Grab a can
It's taken awhile, but the canned specialty beer revolution is starting to spread to the pumpkin patch. Red Racer (Canada) and Wild Onion (Illinois) have been around for a couple of years. Last year, Sixpoint (New York) added Autumnation to its lineup of 16-ounce cans, and this year Shipyard is bringing out its popular Pumpkinhead in cans.
As with other styles, pumpkin beer is ripe for improvisation. Here's a few that are pushing the envelope:
Hoppin' Frog Barrel-Aged Frog's Hollow Double Pumpkin. The brand name is a mouthful, and so is this smooth, strong (8.4 percent alcohol) brew aged in used whiskey barrels.
Timmermans Pumpkin Lambicus. Normally it's raspberries or cherries that go into spontaneously fermented Belgian fruit lambic. This is the first I've heard made with pumpkin.
Fisherman's Imperial Pumpkin Stout. A good dark beer can handle all those spices, and Cape Ann Brewing (Massachusetts) does it darker and stronger (11 percent alcohol) than anyone else.
Harpoon Pumpkin Cider. What brings out the flavor of fall more than pumpkins? Apples!