As City Paper staffers sat down to sample a pumpkin beer for this very scientific, very official taste test of six local fall beers, someone at the table asked a simple-but-necessary question: Why? Why do brewers make pumpkin beers fall after fall? Nobody really seemed to know.
But the general need for fall beers of all stripes is a bit more obvious: The heavier beers offer a higher ABV and, thus, a bit more body warmth as the temperatures drop and the wind starts to whip up. That became very clear as nine of us tried these six local offerings and went back to our desks with a pretty solid buzz.
Fall beers are likely already taking up a lot of shelf space at your nearby liquor store, so we thought we'd offer a guide to some being put out by breweries in and around Baltimore. After taking sips, we carefully jotted down tasting notes and ranked the beers from one to six, with six being the highest. Below are our thoughts, the beer's ABV, and the average score.
Diamondback Brewing Company's Oktoberfest
ABV: 6.5 percent. Score: 4.78
Having just secured a brewing space in McHenry Row after nearly two years of contract brewing, Diamondback Brewing is the new kid on the block, but its take on a classic Oktoberfest lager was a clear favorite. Our panel of nine liked the light body and creamy flavor, with two testers likening it to a fall version of another City Paper favorite, Peabody Heights' Old Oriole Park Bohemian. The light, inoffensive flavor led some to believe the beer wasn't all that interesting. "Too mild. Too bland. Too much a stand-in actor going through the motions waiting for the real celebrity to come on stage," one wrote. While it didn't factor into the score, several panelists liked the can design that combined the color palette of one of the Bavarian flags and the Maryland state flag.
Flying Dog's The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale
ABV: 9 percent. Score: 4.11
Finally, one of the aforementioned pumpkin beers, and this one is a heavy hitter. One tester thought that it mellowed out with each sip and noted the beer's deep aromatics and Trappist depth. As several wrote, The Fear is more pumpkin pie than pumpkin, serving up a large dose of brown sugar followed by notes of cardamom and cinnamon. Another tester wrote that it "encapsulates what I want from a beverage marketed for the fall, without being too overbearing." The people who didn't like it really didn't like it, though. One said it was like "burnt charcoal and cotton candy." Two less flattering comparisons: rubbing alcohol and vomit.
Jailbreak Brewing Company's The Carrot Conspiracy
ABV: 6.7 percent. Score 3.89
The Laurel-based brewery's amber ale contains a surprising list of ingredients in addition to carrots: raisins, lactose (huh?), spices, and vanilla beans. Consider yourself warned: It really, really, really does taste like carrots—or, as one judge put it, "carrot cake in a can." If that sounds all right, you should enjoy this beer. Our panel quite liked the creamy texture, with one panelist describing the beer as "a little grassy, like carrot-based cold-pressed juice, but you know, alcoholic." Another thought this sounded like beer combined with V-8 but found it to be "unexpectedly pleasant." Added another: "I'd drink plenty of this stuff." Here's another warning, however: A couple of the beer's detractors likened the flavor not to carrots, but to Robitussin.
DuClaw's 31 Pumpkin Spiced Lager
ABV: 5.7 percent. Score: 3.44
The 31, which DuClaw has been brewing since 2008, hits the palate with a lot of spice before mellowing out a bit—the taste reminded a few panelists of Dr. Pepper, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. One reviewer said it had "just enough delicious sugary ickiness to go down like pie." Here's another positive take: "It tastes like a pumpkin spice latte—jumpy, fizzy." But the group was fairly divided over this one, giving this lager as many five ratings (three) as twos. Wrote one taster who wasn't especially impressed: "Remember that one time you thought it would be cool to dump your spice rack in one dish? We don't either." And again, while it did not factor into the score, several were amused that the label resembled a Nine Inch Nails album cover.
Heavy Seas' Treasure Fest Oktoberfest Lager
ABV: 6 percent. Score: 3.22
New this year, the Treasure Fest mixes German malt and hops "with a dry-hopped cannon of American hops." But that's not as extreme as it sounds. Many on our distinguished panel found the beer smooth and agreed it had a more robust flavor profile than the other Oktoberfest beer we tried. But the level of enjoyment of those flavors varied. One likened it to banana Laffy Taffy, while yet another said it tasted "like a melted butterscotch lollipop" that has the "creamy farm-y aftertaste of cheap candy." This observation sums it up pretty well: "Crisp—then fruit. Banana. Then creamy finish, but weird." Said another: "Fine, but it wouldn't hold my attention for more than a glass."
Union Craft Brewing's Foxy Seasonal IPA
ABV: 6.5 percent. Score: 2.22
We recently named Union the Best Brewery in our Best Of Baltimore Issue, and we stand by that. But this hop bomb totally missed the mark with our panel. "Chemically bitter," wrote one panelist. "No distinct flavor" beyond the hops, wrote another. Two panelists, however, were able to pick out a flavor: cat litter. (To be clear, they have never actually eaten cat litter, but this is what they imagine it would taste like.) Another tester drew inspiration from the periodic table for their takedown: "Pick a chemical on there that humans are not supposed to drink and that's what this tasted like." To be fair, one reviewer liked it enough to give it a six. "Foxy has a strong hoppy taste, smells like camping—in a good way, with pine forests and campfire smoke—and lingers on the tongue in an unidentifiable way that makes you want another sip, to pin it down, but you can't, so you have another sip, and another."