Forget industry diversity, market saturation, hop shortages, or the lack of small, independent maltsters: The craft beer topic guaranteed to raise blood pressures highest is undoubtedly the pumpkin.
Like many seasonals, limited releases, and one-offs, pumpkin beer is made with a lighthearted, often tongue-in-cheek approach, and is generally intended to appeal to those who actually enjoy its base ingredient. Yet pumpkin brews are so reviled among many craft beer aficionados, writers, and other pundits -- not just on an individual basis but as a style -- you'd think their rise was foretold by Michael Jackson to be the first sign of a new Prohibition.
The most common complaints in my experience are along the lines of "They're released too soon!" and "They're terrible!"
When it comes to the first concern, either breweries have listened to the wails of drinkers everywhere or the people making this complaint are specifically talking about Southern Tier PumKing, which is released in July due to incredible demand worldwide. But I actually had trouble finding pumpkin beers around the Madison area before the first week in October.
I'll grant that many pumpkin beers are weak, particularly those conceived in a cynical, if-we-must spirit typical of breweries disengaged with the seasonal cycle. But for those who think all these beers are worth dismissing, regardless of base style or brewery, it's possible that you just don't enjoy pumpkin in the first place. But that's okay. Take a deep breath. If someone is forcing you to drink pumpkin beer against your will, please contact the relevant authorities.
If you fall in either of these camps, or hate pumpkin beer for an unspecified (but no doubt legitimate) reason, consider yourself in the safe, protected majority: The only seasonal indulgence that's as unpopular as liking pumpkin beer is enjoying Christmas music.
Indeed, from fury over the lack of actual pumpkin in Starbucks's Pumpkin Spice Latte to the recent pumpkin festival riots in New Hampshire, it's safe to say that the privileged have taken pumpkin policing to an unhealthy level.
For those who simply enjoy pumpkin as they might any other seasonal ingredient, here are five beers made in southern Wisconsin that should be tasted. Each demonstrates that while haters are free to hate, they're missing out, and those of us who do enjoy a pumpkin brew are fine just as we are.
Self-awareness: Impressively unconcerned
What makes it good: A mostly-spice nose but tangy, almost citrusy palate and long, full-bodied finish makes Painted Ladies an even-handed yet almost Christmas-y pumpkin ale. It's a pumpkin-puree-based and spice-infused amber ale with Fuggle -- indubitably the best-named hop, as well as vaguely monster-esque -- and two-row, pale, and caramel malts. This beer improves markedly as it opens up and warms to near-room temperature, making it an excellent party treat.
Pairing: Cave-aged Gouda and pumpkin-oil popcorn.
Alternate pairing: Fun-size Butterfinger and Donovan's "Season of the Witch."
Self-awareness: Alan Rickman having a Ratatouille moment
What makes it good: A wheaty nose and delicate, crisp palate with a boost of Celeia hops make this taste like a nice, respectable Bavarian dunkelweizen that's been snarfing pumpkin pie while no one's looking -- which is exactly what it sounds like brewmaster Dan Carey had in mind. Let's put one thing on the table, though: There is no pumpkin in this beer. None. Like the maligned Pumpkin Spice Latte, this New Glarus offering would seem to pour fuel on the pumpkin beer hater's fire. But have you ever baked with pumpkin? Even once? Without spices, this squash is a mild-flavored starch, which means it makes sense as an adjunct to the malt bill but not really as a flavoring agent on its own. Let's be real, folks. Chocolate malt does not actually contain chocolate. And as Wednesday Addams might point out, Girl Scout cookies do not contain real Girl Scouts.
Pairing: Chicken-apple sausages and roasted potatoes.
Alternate pairing: Twix bars and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is most certainly a Halloween film).
Brandy Barrel-Aged Imperial Pumpkin Ale from Lakefront Brewery
What makes it good:This imperial brew is everything pumpkin beer lovers enjoy: A sweet, chewy, delightful ode to the sensation of being warm and cozy in the fall. Barrel aging can play beautifully against the sweet starch of pumpkin as long as the spices are kept in check, as they are here. Lakefront is a true friend to fans of the style, and is clearly committed to brewing with class and creativity.
Pairing: Butter Pecan ice cream with Reese's Pieces.
Alternate pairing: Just a bag of candy and the original "Thriller" video.
Self-awareness: Unapologetic, with a monocle
What makes it good: Lest haters point out that it's pretty easy to make beer taste good by dialing up the alcohol, I present Lakefront's original pumpkin offering, a simple lager. A subtle but rich nose and a crisp, even, and only delicately pumpkined palate is a testament to the four weeks of lagering this unique brew enjoyed before release. You don't see pumpkin lager very often, likely because it's not an easy style to make and represents a time commitment that breweries phoning in their pumpkin beers might not want to invest.
Pairing: A roast with a side of fall vegetables.
Alternate pairing: Whatever "healthy substitutes" your local dentist hands out to neighborhood kids out trick-or-treating, they'll go great with this beer.
What makes it good: Fans of PumKing will delight in this creamy, rich pumpkin ale that sends a resounding evil laugh to its haters. It tastes much stronger than its ABV, partially due to a buttery character that would represent an irritating level of diacetyl in most styles but adds to the iced-pumpkin-cookie drinking sensation here. There's no doubt of the pumpkin in the recipe, filling out a sweet malt bill that plays against the significant spicing beautifully. This is pumpkin beer letting its freak flag fly. Rather than attempting to win over the elitists, it sends a fat, happy holiday snuggle to those who love a little indulgence with their seasonal drinking.
Pairing: Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Psycho.
Alternate pairing: Hocus Pocus and cream-cheese pumpkin cookies.
For those who enjoy these brews, there is hope. This year, for the first time, the Great American Beer Festival presented pumpkin beer as a specific style category, a testament to its growing legitimacy as top-notch breweries see what they can do. Better yet, a Wisconsin beer claimed a medal in the category -- Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale from Stevens Point Brewery took home bronze.
Whether you love or hate pumpkin beers, it's clear bigger and better ones are yet to come, especially in this state with its innovative breweries. One word of caution, though: If you are joining the pumpkin beer party this year, do so as soon as possible. Some brews, including the Whole Hog, have already come and gone, and others are running out. Perhaps next year there will be even more pumpkin beers out there -- maybe even enough to pair with pie on Thanksgiving.