By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
Conversations about pumpkin ale can be testy. Some can’t get enough of the style and will try every pumpkin ale on the market; some think it’s an overly spiced or sickly-sweet abomination among fall seasonals. Whatever the direction of the debate, the mention of one beer’s name is enough to silence critics and humble wannabes. “But what about PumKing?” somebody says, and the controversy is over.
Southern Tier Brewing Company PumKing has single-pintedly done what precious few beers can: it has taken on a style -- one that’s at best a niche market and at worst the unwanted awkward kid at the seasonal beer lunch table -- and elevated that style to greatness.
PumKing is the “Imperial Pumpkin Ale” that pumpkin ale haters will drink, and grinning jack o’lantern of glory that makes other pumpkin ales weep with envy.
What makes it the King? Hefty alcohol and a serious hop wallop, along with real pureed pumpkin so rich each sip tastes like inhaling Grandma’s pumpkin pie, makes this brew succeed where so many others fail: on the mid-palate and finish.
Pumpkin pie spices smell good, so it’s easy to make a pumpkin ale with a good nose: throw in a little cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg flavor, and you’ve got a nice fall beer aroma. The problem with so many is a thin or watery mid-palate that just doesn’t satisfy like a mouthful of chewy pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie or pumpkin cookie. PumKing, however, is the dessert of fall beers. Since the very first batch in 2007, the PumKing recipe has changed only slightly each year, says brewery graphics and media director Nathan Arnone. “We think this year is the best batch so far and we'll likely keep it for next year.”
What’s the secret? Good luck replicating it -- the guarded recipe is a New York State treasure, after all. This year Southern Tier brewed over 4,000 bbl of PumKing; “Nearly all of it was sold to distributors before it was even made,” says Arnone. “We see on Facebook and Twitter how quickly stores and bars sell out of it. It's a highly anticipated seasonal product, to say the least. We're pleasantly surprised at the response we've had this year. Because so many people are interested in it, we expect varying reactions. But the overwhelming comments have been positive.”
PumKing’s beloved status in Southern Tier’s Western New York community is evinced by the lines of growler-carrying fans waiting to fill up when it’s tapped at local stores; the common worry is that it will be sold out long before Halloween at this rate. Fortunately, PumKing ages nicely -- the assertive Magnum and Sterling hop profile and 8.6 percent ABV ensure that it can mellow nicely for months, and maybe even years. A few friends and I will be experimenting this year with cellaring a few bottles to open next fall.