Elusive Pumpkin Beer PerfectionOct 10, 2013
Earlier this week, Brooklyn Brewery’s Co-Founder Steve Hindy told us that “the perfect beer has to fit the occasion.” With so many beers on the market — from brands (both craft and commercial) to varieties (think ale, stout, light and dark) to seasonal brews (cue Oktoberfest) — it can be difficult to make a selection. But what if you taste that perfect draft — the one that compels you to carefully savor every last sip — and you can’t remember the name or find it anywhere after the fact? For NYSOM’s friends Kristie Hsu and Dave Himrod, a pint of mouthwateringly delicious pumpkin ale led to a year-long search for what they declared “the best pumpkin beer.” And New York States of Mind was along for the most rewarding part of the journey, when they finally found that elusive gourd brew (which just so happens to be made right here in New York). In October 2012, Dave and Kristie had their first sips of this quixotic elixir at a bar in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Recalls Dave, “the bar’s menu had a section called ‘Pumpkin Patch,’ highlighting a special pumpkin beer on tap that night.” The ale in question was, “the best pumpkin beer I’ve ever had. And it actually tasted like pumpkins. It even smelled like pumpkins.” Kristie added, “It tasted like pumpkin pie.” They left the bar with the after-taste on their palates and an eagerness to stockpile an inventory before harvest season transitioned into winter. Operating on the assumption that the beer’s name was Pumpkin Patch (per the listing on the bar’s menu), they searched online with hopes of buying in bulk. Happily, they found Pumpkin Patch online and ordered a case. It seemed too good to be true, and unfortunately, it was; this Pumpkin Patch beer was not the one they remembered. It tasted like all other pumpkin beers they’d tried: a hint of pumpkin, a touch of spice and not much else. They soon realized that the “Pumpkin Patch” was a festive categorization and not the name of the beer itself. A few months later, Dave found himself near that same Hell’s Kitchen bar. Determined, he stopped in to talk to the bartender. “I told him, ‘You had this pumpkin beer a few months ago and it was amazing. What is it called?’ And he said, ‘You are probably talking about Pumking.’ So now we had a name, but it was the middle of winter so we knew we wouldn’t find it for several months.” Fast forward to this October. Kristie and Dave recently moved to Brooklyn and discovered a neighborhood beer shop, American Beer Distributing Co. Sitting on the shelves, Pumking — a seasonal brew from the Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, NY — was hard to miss: the 22 oz. bottles are adorned with a bright orange label, and a devious royal jack-o-lantern. (You might even say that, similar to Brooklyn Brewery’s beers, Pumking has “shelf authority.”) We bought a few bottles and, with NYSOM’s friend Andrew Eifler, hurried to the Hsu-Himrod residence for a long awaited reunion with their favorite pumpkin ale. Pouring the copper-colored libation into our drinking glasses, the eager spectators anticipated their first sip with the restlessness and excitement of a kid in a candy store. The beer flowed from the bottle like soft orange silk, and looked almost creamy as it filled to the top of each glass. Finally, with pints in hand, we lifted our glasses and smelled. Immediately, Dave and Kristie’s shoulders relaxed and their expressions turned from anxious to relieved. Confirming with the first swig, they declared with the utmost confidence that it was THE beer. Dave raved, “It smells like I should be sitting by the fire. It just hits the nostrils.” And after taking his first-ever nip, Andrew agreed, “It’s significantly more pumpkin-y [than similar beers].” As the name suggests, Pumking is the reigning pumpkin beer. It’s flavor isn’t merely reminiscent of pumpkins; it tastes just like the gourd itself and, as Kristie first pointed out, pumpkin pie. In a Halloween-spirited state of mind, we rounded out the evening by carving pumpkins and sampling other New York-made pumpkin brews, including Saranac’s Pumpkin Ale and Ithaca Beer Company’s Country Pumpkin. All were refreshing, and we enjoy both companies’ product lines. As far as pumpkin ale is concerned, however, Dave declared, “when I drink Pumking, I think 'fall.' This one IS fall.” In a pleasant pumpkin-induced haze, we wondered: What makes this particular blend so hypnotizing? According to Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Head Brewer, Dustin Hazer, “There is no ‘secret’ ingredient in Pumking, just the typical spices you would find in a classic pumpkin pie.” The key is the process of blending the ingredients at the right time, which is pivotal “to the great aroma and flavors in the beer. We can tell you that the pumpkin is added early, in the mash, so as not to get the harsh vegetal flavors in the final product.” And as for the smell? “About 80% of what you ‘taste’ is perceived via your olfactory sense (smell), which makes balancing the intricate blend of spices very important,” Mr. Hazer continued. “We want you to get a great aroma from the spices in this beer to help [complement] the subtle, yet important bready flavors of the malt. This is what helps give that delicious pie crust flavor in tandem with the spicy and vanilla notes.” Mr. Hazer also (modestly) mentioned that their goal is to “get as close to pumpkin pie as we could and hopefully we were able to achieve this!” Our non-scientific poll unanimously confirms the brewer’s success. Nothing’s better for a New York Spirited State of Mind than Pumking. And we may just hoard a few cases to get us through the winter months as well. To stock up on your own supply, find a Pumking distributor near you. Cheers! Have you ever tried Pumking? Tell us in the comments below.