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It's the Great Pumpkin ales
Here's a bevy of beers to try when you're pining for that pumpkin patch.
October 29, 2004: 3:05 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I've always admired Linus Van Pelt, who every autumn ignores the taunts of the 'Peanuts' gallery to wait faithfully for the Great Pumpkin to arrive.

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Sensitive Linus has his heart in the right place. But he's mistaken to sit out all night in a farmer's field. If you're looking for a great pumpkin, go to a bar -- for an ale that's made with the stuff.

Beer, properly defined, can accommodate a host of ingredients besides commonplace barley and hops. And one of the best aspects of the microbrewing revolution of the past 20 years is that it's given rise to terrific experimentation.

That means flavors to match the season, such as cherry beers in summer. When autumn rolls around, it's all about pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Scores of brewpubs across the country try their hand at pumpkin ales (in New York City, the Heartland Brewery makes a nice one). As many as a dozen varieties are available in bottles, too, though most are only distributed on a regional basis.

Among the more widely available ones is Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale, which originated at a brewpub in Hayward, Calif. in the mid-1980s. The bottled version is now made by the Portland Brewing Co.

When Portland began brewing and bottling Buffalo Bill's in 1997, the company released 15,000 cases. This year, they'll sell some 100,000 cases in 23 states -- a statement about the style's growing popularity.

What's old is new

Traditionalists may scoff at unusually flavored beers as being trendy bastardizations of a time-honored beverage.

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But in the case of pumpkin ale, beer conservatives are a few bottles short of a case.

In fact, the style is older than America itself. It first evolved when colonial brewers began searching for an alternative to English barley, which was expensive and scarce.

Among the substitutes they tested were pumpkins, which were native to the Western Hemisphere and ubiquitous throughout the colonies. It worked.

A few hundred years later, Buffalo Bill's founder, Bill Owens, read about those colonial experiments and decided to revive the style. Guess what: It still works.

The style incorporates roasted pumpkins into the mash -- the part of the brewing process in which starchy substances are boiled in water to release their sugars.

Nobody makes an all-pumpkin beer. But adding some pumpkin to a barley-malt base yields interesting results.

Taste test

I have been drinking many of the pumpkin ales as they've become available over the past few weeks. (For descriptions and tasting notes, take a look at the gallery.)

They share certain characteristics, most notably their aromas. All of them smell like hot pies at Thanksgiving. Beyond that, they exhibit a range that might surprise you.

The brewer's art lies in just how much pumpkin taste ends up in the ale. Too much might be cloying, but not enough makes you wonder what the fuss is about.

Many ales abound with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, even at the expense of the pumpkin. Others aren't so heavily spiced, to emphasize sweetness.

Last night, a friend and I sampled three of them -- Buffalo Bill's, Post Road, and Dogfish Head -- side by side. We had hoped to add Smuttynose and Shipyard, but both were sold out. (I've tried each of them earlier this season, however.)

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She liked Post Road best. A medium-bodied amber, it starts out mild with a kick of spicy aromas coming near the end of a sip.

For me, the winner was Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale, although I liked the Smuttynose even more, as memory serves.

The Dogfish Head is full bodied, sweeter and slightly less spicy (or better balanced) than many others. It also tastes more like pumpkin to me.

But don't take my word for it. Get out there and try some yourself.

Remember, these seasonal brews are only available for a short time. Judging by our sad experience with sold-out Smuttynose, you better hurry.

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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