With summer just barely reaching its stride, it is hard to think about falling leaves and crisp autumn air anytime soon. However, like clockwork, the Oktoberfests and pumpkin ales are already hitting shelves. Fall is here in the beer world.
A few years ago beer fans collectively rolled our eyes as brewers tried to capitalize on the pumpkin beer craze. Every brewer it seemed was churning out spiced ales. Shelves would be lined with row after row of labels adorned with pumpkins and named some sly variation of the others, earlier and earlier, eventually creeping into summer.
It was overwhelming.
Luckily, a fair few of the good ones keep coming back every year since California’s Buffalo Bill’s Brewery casually invented the pumpkin beer in 1985. But only one is the king.
A Gem In Eastern New York
Southern Tier, based out of Lakewood, NY consistently churns out some of the most delicious and creative beers all year long.
They have perennial favorites like Creme Brulee and White Chocolate Raspberry which sound like over the top flavor bombs but are always executed with perfection, and their flagship 2XIPA has been the same delicious dry-hopped monster for years.
Since opening in 2004, they’ve grown steadily to brew over 100,000 barrels each year, distributing to 33 states and serving up pints in four taprooms in the east.
But in 2007 the king was born. An Imperial ale with pumpkin and spices that weighed in at a hefty 8.9% ABV. It was a masterpiece with cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and clove, and each sip tasted like a bite of fresh pumpkin pie. Nothing quite like it could be found on shelves or brewhouses around.
Pumking started his reign.
An Ode to the Celtic Goblin Púca
For the following years, Pumking reigned alone, each year rising above the rank and file pumpkin ales in tribute to Púca.
Púca is said to be a mischievous but benevolent deity that often showed up during Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival at summer’s end. On Púca’s day, November 1st, it is said that the normally nocturnal spirit could be found in the daylight, carousing and celebrating as any remaining crops are brought in from the fields.
What better way to celebrate with a little mischief alongside the Pumking after a year of hard work? We definitely get it.
This year the legend of Pumking has changed a little. There are now five realms that make up the commonwealth of the Pumkingdom and they pay tribute to the power of the Great Pumking Patch, which protects the realms.
While no longer brewing to the spirit of Púca, the bones are still there: mischief, hard work, protection.
A Pumking and His Court
As time passed, Pumking’s following exploded and variations were introduced. The King’s court grew. In recent years, it included one-offs and special small batches like the Chai Tea Infused Pumking introduced in 2017 and the monster Rum Barrel Aged Pumking.
This year’s court is a bit smaller with only five variations, the five realms, but included is a never before seen heavy hitter: whiskey.
Pumking Imperial Ale and Pumking Nitro headline the realms with their bold flavors. Still 8.6% monsters, they taste like a bite of pumpkin pie. The nitro version comes in 16oz cans with a smoother and creamier pour.
Also returning is Warlock Imperial Stout. Warlock came to the realm in 2011 and has been a part of the kingdom ever since. While for some the dessert-like sweetness of Pumking might be a bit too much, Warlock is a “dark and mysterious” stout with strong roasted malt flavor wrapping its cloak around the vanilla and spice of pumpkin.
Cold Brew Coffee Pumking makes an appearance from the most recent few years. Taking the smooth nuttiness of cold brew coffee and adding to it the vanilla and spice of Pumking means a flavorful brew without being too overpowering.
Maybe the King will see fit to bless us with a nitro version this year? We’ll stalk the taprooms just in case.
The newest member to join the ranks is Pumking Pumpkin Whiskey, a 70 proof 35% ABV spirit made at Southern Tier Distillery. It is still a pumpkin pie in a glass, but with “mild whiskey notes that flavored whiskey drinkers have come to expect.”
Currently, the whiskey has limited availability but as the season wears on it will find its way to the wider, thirsty audience.
The market each autumn will continue to be flooded with far too many variations of pumpkin beer. It's almost a rite of passage for a brewer to put out their own variation, and each year it gets earlier and earlier. Thankfully as a community, we’ve started to filter the trub and can finally look forward to the good beers that come back every year.
Fall might come early for Southern Tier but we welcome the arrival of Pumking and his court.
Long live the King.