Monthly Archives: August 2011

Starr Hill “Boxcar” Pumpkin Porter (2011)

Star Hill’s “Boxcar” Pumpkin Porter is 5.2% ABV.

I poured the entirety of a 12 oz bottle into a pint glass.

Appearance: A conservative-at-the-beginning, very liberal-at-the-end pour gave a light brown 1-finger head that after five minutes shrank to a third of its size. This left a thin and creamy barely-there head that hung on to the side of the glass, which continued to dissipate. The color is very dark brown to almost black. This beer is opaque, looking much more like a stout than a porter. Just a few tiny carbonation bubbles are visible at the bottom of the glass, touching the side of the glass. There isn’t much carbonation here.

Smell: There is heavy spice upfront, with some sour-ish pumpkin notes. The smell is mostly dominated by clove and nutmeg, as well as some very clearly discernible pumpkin. It doesn’t smell much like a porter.

Taste: Roasted coffee-ish malt upfront, followed by prominent spicing (mainly clove) with the pumpkin flavor. You can identify the pumpkin in this, which hangs on for a bit with the clove in the finish. The pumpkin is more difficult to focus on upfront, especially with the first couple sips, when compared to the finish. It does eventually come through, though. The taste is a bit light on the palate for a porter.

Feel: It is light to medium bodied for a porter, with a small amount of carbonation. The beer has some creamy quality to it that coats the mouth, but this is too thin to hang on for long.

Drinkability: This beer is not difficult to drink, but I’m not inclined to have very many. It is low enough in ABV, but exhibits a kind of flatness both in flavor and feel that seems like it could get boring after awhile (even compared to drinking something in the style of a PBR). It is dark, but doesn’t have the feel or flavor of a dark beer. It also doesn’t have the refreshing quality one gets with a much lighter pilsner. Seems like it is in a kind of no man’s land.

Overall: I don’t see anything particularly wrong with this beer, but it is not a favorite of mine. It is certainly a fine beer to have with a meal, or while watching a game. I wouldn’t want many, and I really wouldn’t seek it out. It could be a good middle-of-the-road pumpkin beer if one wanted something a little darker than the standard light pumpkin ales, like Buffalo Bill’s or Saranac’s. Though if you put the darkness/lightness elements to the side, this may not be preferable to Saranac. Saranac is about 3 bucks cheaper than the 9-10 bucks this goes for per six-pack. For a middle-of-the-road beer that is a little flat in terms of flavor, this is priced a bit high.

Overall Rating: **

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Schlafly Imperial Pumpkin Ale (2011)

Schlafly Imperial Pumpkin Ale joins us at 8.0% ABV.

I poured most of a 12 oz bottle into a stemless wine glass.

Appearance:  A vigorous pour yields a light tan two-finger head that dissipates over the course of about 90 seconds. This left some thin lacing that coats the glass with a small tilt. The color is light amber, with an orange tint that, aside from some very fine and disparate cloudiness, is almost crystal clear . The pin-sized bubbles from carbonation are visible rising from the center of the glass and on the sides.

Smell: At first vegetal pumpkin, immediately followed by a heavy spice presence. The spicing was heavy on the nutmeg and cinnamon, and not offputting at all. Imagine the smell of cut up roasted pumpkin with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg and some amber ale in your hand. The smell is not really sweet like in some pumkin ales (i.e., Shouthern Tier’s “Pumking” and Williamsburg Alewerks’ Pumpkin Ale), and you don’t get any indication that this is 8%.

Taste: Up front you get the spices of cinnamon and nutmeg and the vegetable side of the pumpkin. There is also a bit of something grainy or wheat-like, which hits towards the middle and right before the relatively dry finish. The taste is balanced by a good malt presence, and some hops that pronounce themselves along with the grains and wheat for the finish. The aftertaste is malty-sweet with lots of spice and a bit of astringency. Still, it would be hard to tell from the taste that this beer is 8%.

Feel: The beer is medium bodied, leaving it smooth and even sort of creamy. The carbonation is there, but nothing that attracts much attention.

Drinkability: This is a very nice drinking beer. A lot of heavier pumpkin ales (i.e., Shipyard’s “Smashed Pumpkin” and Heavy Seas’ “The Great Pumpkin”) can be a bit difficult to drink a good bit of. This is in part because of the way the alcohol comes through, and in part because of the big flavors that are needed to balance things together. This beer, however, is a fine drinking beer. Very little, other than the 8% ABV, is keeping you from working on a six-pack. (After two or so, it may happen that the spice begins to add up and weigh one down.)

Overall: This beer is delicious, and well-balanced. It is a big beer, but can be enjoyed without one being smacked in the face with alcohol or some flavor characteristics that stick out too much. This is one of the best pumpkin beers I’ve had. I really enjoy the vegetal pumpkin, and the sweetness holds the beer together (rather than leading the way). I think this is up there with Southern Tier’s “Pumking”, however falling somewhat short. The spicing can feel a bit flat and monotonous, since it doesn’t quite give way to many other flavors (as happens with “Pumking”). (With the Schlafly, you otherwise just get some wheat and malt). The final astringency is also a small drawback that isn’t so pleasant. Still, this is a wonderful beer.

Overall Rating: ****1/2

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Pumpkin Beer Season in 2011 is Upon Us!

I was quite happy to notice some pumpkin beer at the store today. We are not having anything approaching Fall weather here in Charlottesville. I usher in these brews nonetheless. Last pumpkin beer season, I tasted the following beers. (These are ordered roughly from those I liked least to those I liked most, with asterisks reflecting those that were new to me then.)

Last Year’s Beers

Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale (5.5%)
Uinta “Punk’n” Harvest Pumpkin Ale (4.0%)
*Shipyard “Pumpkinhead” Pumpkin Ale (5.1%)
Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale (5.2%)
Blue Moon “Harvest Pumpkin” Pumpkin Ale (5.7%)
Brooklyn “Post Road” Pumpkin Ale (5.0%)
Saranac Pumpkin Ale (5.1%)
*Heavy Seas “The Great’er Pumpkin” Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Pumpkin Ale (9.0%)
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (6.0%)
*New Holland “Ichabod” Pumpkin Ale (5.5%)
*Heavy Seas “The Great Pumpkin” Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8.0%)
Dogfishhead “Punkin” Imperial Pumpkin Ale (7.0%)
*Wolaver’s “Will Stevens’” Pumpkin Ale (5.4%)
*Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8.0%)
*Williamsburg Alewerks Imperial Pumpkin Ale (7.3%)
Southern Tier “Pumking” Imperial Pumpkin Ale (9.0%)

As may be seen, I tasted a modest amount last year. This year I really plan to up the ante. Thus this blog.

A few preliminary remarks are in order before I begin to spew my disorganized and inarticulate thoughts about the beers this year.

Rating System

Let me discuss my rating system. I use a star rating system ranging from * to *****, with intermediate ratings increasing by 1/4 of a star. I tend to give the beers I like the least one star, but will still leave room for the possibility of grades as low as 1/4 of one star. These I hope to not taste. There is always hope. By way of something like a semantics for this system, I have the admittedly (but necessarily) rough schema below. This schema is not intended to be a group of direct translations of star ratings, but a helpful guide to see what it is for me to give these ratings.

* = poor

** = decent

*** = good

**** = great

***** = exceptional

Any rating falling in between one of these need not have a word of its own. That is, I don’t have some word for what a **1/4 rating is. Giving a **1/4 rating implies that I liked it more than ** beers, but less then *** beers. The schema above provides some context. Two star beers are decent beers, while three star beers are good beers. My use of this schema naturally brings up two issues.

Background for Rating System

First, one might wonder about more nuanced differences between the beers, and whether this schema allows me to capture these things.

This is a good issue to consider. Obviously the devil is in the details. For the individual reviews I will give, I will talk about the beers in some detail before giving an overall rating. This way, I allow for some more nuanced discussion of the various differences between these beers. (Hopefully I can achieve some reasonable detail in comparisons.) Again, the schema just provides some context for the otherwise empty syntax of the star system.

Second, one might wonder (setting aside the intermediate ratings) what it means to say that some beer is a “decent” beer. There are two things someone may have in mind in raising this issue. To start, there is the thought that (i) there may be no objectively decent (or good or great, etc.) beer, that different people have different pallates and so things are only  decent for an individual or group. There is also the thought that (ii) there is nothing to being a decent beer full stop (whether or not it is relative to a person or group), that there are only decent beers for particular purposes (i.e., having a dinner party, gettin crunk at the club, etc.).

These are both good issues to discuss. With respect to (i), the manner in which I will proceed allows that there may not be an objectively decent beer. I know that I am speaking to my tastes when I say that some beer is decent or great. Hopefully some will find that they have similar tastes, or can get something out of my ratings, given my tastes. (I finish this post by talking a bit about what beers I tend to like and dislike. This may be helpful.) With respect to (ii), I will proceed as though there is something to a rating of good or decent full stop. Of course if you are having a dinner party with elaborate entrees, you probably won’t want malt liquor with every course. Nevertheless, in terms of rating the beers, I think that there is something I am expressing when I say that a beer is decent or good. I think there is something to an overall impression. I am rating all of these beers as pumpkin beers. I think there is an overall impression that I can capture there.

Aim of the Blog

The main aim here is simple: to get across what I think and feel about these beers. Of course there are other aims: to have fun, to try lots of pumpkin beers, to kick it with some cool folks. Given the main aim, I have chosen to use mostly English and natural language in my ratings. I don’t use numbers, or fine-tuned calculations for the various components I discuss. I do, as explained above, have a rating system that is itself formal. (This serves the task of assisting with giving overall grades or impressions to beers that are comparative.) Nevertheless, I stray from using numbers. Part of the motivation for this is that it seems to reflect a rigor or technicality in evaluation that would be misleading and even disingenuous to my project here. My aim is to relay these thoughts and impressions. Hopefully I will improve over time.

My Typical Tastes

I like many different beers, but I tend to gravitate towards a couple of different styles. I really enjoy Saisons and Farmhouse Ales, probably more than other beers. I really like IPA’s, but don’t just look for lots of hops. In particular, I like IPA’s that have some botanical or floral elements. I also enjoy Belgian Tripels that are well-balanced enough to not smack you in the face with alcohol.

Those amount to my favorite beer types, though I like a lot more beers than just the ones that fall into those categories. I will drink just about any beer, and there are very few beers that I find undrinkable. For instance, I quite enjoy Pumpkin Ales.

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