Pumpkin beers catch a lot of flak. #BeerTwitter predictably rolls its collective eyes every year as the first pumpkin offerings hit tap lines and beer stores throughout the country. Many craft drinkers lament that the pumpkin invasion is stealing shelf space from better beer. Others complain they come too early (August this year).
While it is impossible to deny that pumpkin beers take up brewery volume that could be dedicated to producing more of a favorite offering or something else new entirely, it should also be noted that people do drink them. Predictably, Untappd check-ins for pumpkin/yam beers peak in the fall months of October and November before dropping noticeably after Thanksgiving.
Count me among the beer drinkers that has consumed more bad pumpkin beer than good. Typically, the style veers towards cloyingly sweet while not bringing enough hop or other character to keep things in balance. At its worst, these beers taste medicinal, as the addition of “pumpkin spices” like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove reinforce the sweetness while introducing spice qualities that are normally (and maybe should be) foreign to beer.
Temperature can be an issue for me as well. Drinking something cold that features pumpkin and warming spices does not usually make for a positive experience (ice cold pumpkin pie anyone?). When allowed to warm, the sweetness and spices play up even more.
So yeah, I am not always a fan of pumpkin beer. It usually takes a strong recommendation or a radically different approach to the style before I'll wonder if it is worth buying. Enter New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Atomic Pumpkin, a pumpkin ale with habaneros added for heat. When I see a combination I have never seen before in beer, I pretty much have to pick it up – even if it is chili peppers and pumpkin.
The cinnamon hits you first, but it’s more complex than your average pumpkin spice.”
You could say I had some level of apprehension here. My baseline expectation for a pumpkin beer was disappointment, and the addition of habaneros raiseed the upside but still left my expectations somewhere in the vicinity of spicy disappointment.
Nevertheless, I really wanted this to be good. Maybe the heat would clean up the sweetness and the added spices would hit just the right notes?
The beer’s label featured the standard Voodoo Ranger character with a banner noting this was a special release. Below, the name Atomic Pumpkin was printed and I couldn't help but think about a giant hot pumpkin bomb being dropped from the sky. It sounded like a new Halloween tradition.
I popped the top and the pour revealed a normal looking ale – a flat orange that didn't seem to brighten up when held to the light. The head started small and didn't stick around, leaving a small collection of bubbles in the middle of my pint glass in the shape of Italy.
Daring to give it a whiff, I wafted the aroma towards my nose before deciding to get up close. Surprisingly, the beer didn't have a strong fragrance. What little aroma was there was comprised of cinnamon, habanero, and hints of a sticky sweetness as well. I’m ready for a taste.
The cinnamon hits you first, but it’s more complex than your average pumpkin spice. New Belgium is quick to note this is Saigon Cinnamon used in the beer, which is considered to have a superior aroma and flavor than regular cinnamon. I tend to agree, as this beer has more aromatic and spice quality from the cinnamon addition than the sweet candy like cinnamon flavor I typically associate with pumpkin beers.
I searched for pumpkin flavor and didn't find it, though. I’m not sure Atomic Pumpkin tasted like pumpkin as much as it simply reminded me of pumpkin while drinking it. The cinnamon and some malty sweetness played together to approximate pumpkin.
Right as the beer was starting to get too sweet and I was starting to wonder when the habaneros would come out, a slow round of heat coated my palate and lingered after each sip. While the heat was present, the flavor of the chli peppers was heavily muted, to the point I’d probably have said it was heat from the cinnamon if I didn’t know the beer contained habanero.
The spiciness helped, but the beer was still too sweet overall and felt thin even as the sugar coated my tongue. Atomic Pumpkin was not a bad beer – I’d even score it in the top half of pumpkin beers I have had – but I’m having trouble coming up with the context of when I’d want another. It was too sweet and spicy to have more than one, and may be better suited to split. It also lacked the flavor and mouthfeel I’d want if I’m only having half a beer, though.
Atomic Pumpkin is worth picking up if you’re a fan of pumpkin or pepper beers, and in the end, I’m glad to have tried it.
I'm also relieved I didn’t buy the six pack.