Come fall, two words can trigger intense reactions from people: Pumpkin spice. The pumpkin-spiced lattes, cookies and even bagels that debut earlier and earlier each year thrill some but send others into seasonal hiding.
So, too, do pumpkin-spiced beers, which rear their coppery heads in early autumn. Their intense popularity compels most Long Island breweries to produce their own versions — usually brewed with pumpkin puree, laced with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and offered with a cinnamon-sugar rim in their tasting rooms.
Until recently, I was an avowed pumpkin-spice avoider. Tasting many locally brewed pumpkin beers, however, I found that they’re not all the sugar-and-spice bombs I imagined. Though these beers can certainly mirror one another — coppery, malty, with low bitterness — they also diverge in subtle and alluring ways. A few have distinct hoppiness, at least one I tried is brewed with coffee, and spices tend to be a low, warming thrum.
THE BACK STORY
Pumpkin beers are not new. Pumpkins were occasionally used by Colonial New Englanders as malt, or the fermentable sugary base for beer, when they couldn’t get their hands on malted grain. Those early beers sometimes gained a dodgy reputation among European visitors, but were among the first American culinary innovations.
Hundreds of years on, pumpkin beers are again in heavy demand — and some breweries have already sold out of their first batches. At Small Craft Brewing Co., which opened this spring in Amityville, owners Gerard and Greg Sims use Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal in their P.U.N.K.I.N.S. ale — a move that has proved wildly popular; the brewery ran out in late September, but plans to have more on tap soon.
The following list, by no means complete, shows the breadth of locally brewed pumpkin beers. I tracked a few of them to their sources (the breweries) while others I found in cans or bottles at beverage stores. Craig Golub, co-owner of North Shore Beverage in Mount Sinai, has seen a run on pumpkin beer of late — but thinks we may have reached peak pumpkin spice three or four years ago. “It’s a little bit in its decline, and some companies have stopped making them,” Golub says. Even so, customers still buy cases and cases of the stuff. “Montauk [Brewing, mentioned below] is killing it this year.”
Poster-child pumpkin ale: Leaf Pile Ale from Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. (5.2 percent abv.)
Rich, malty and a deep copper hue, this ale’s gingery spices warm rather than clobber. It’s highly quaffable and available in bottles, as well as at the brewery.
Find it: 234 Carpenter St., Greenport; greenportharborbrewing.com
Beer with the most swagger: Graveyard Smash from Sand City Brewing Co. (7.2 percent abv.)
Fall spices, notably cinnamon, wend through this cloudy ale, adding a smoldering warmth. It’s also the booziest on this list.
More info: 60 Main St., Northport; sandcitybeer.com
Crowd pleaser: Mother Pumpkin Ale from Blue Point Brewing Co. (5.5 percent abv.)
Foamy as all get out, this ale is roasty with a low-key, pure-cocoa bitterness and a faint citrus edge. Available in bottles and at the brewery.
Find it: 161 River Ave., Patchogue; bluepointbrewing.com
Beer to drink well into November: Headless Helmsman from Harbor Head Brewing Co. (6.5 percent abv.)
This brawny ale gains moody flavors and a chocolaty hue from roasted barley, and its autumn spices are upfront but integrated. Have a pint in the cute beer garden while gazing at the harbor.
Pumpkin beer with spine: Pumpkin Ale from Great South Bay Brewing Co. (5 percent abv.)
Roasted pumpkin and Cascade hops combine forces for this robust, round, but still lively ale with a hint of cinnamon. Available in bottles.
Deceptively uncomplicated: Pumpkin Beer from Oyster Bay Brewing Co. (5 percent abv.)
Gently spiced, malty but prickling with hoppiness, this beer is balanced in every way. Available at the brewery as well as in cans.
Find it: 36 Audrey Ave., Oyster Bay; oysterbaybrewing.com
Unabashedly spicy: Pumpkin Ale from Long Ireland Brewing Co. (5 percent abv.)
This rounded, polished ale, brewed with pumpkin puree, finds the middle road between sweetness and bitterness, with caramel notes and distinct nutmeg and clove.
More info: 817 Pulaski St., Riverhead; longirelandbrewing.com
Light on its feet: Montauk Pumpkin Ale from Montauk Brewing Co. (5.7 percent abv.)
This is the most astringent of the bunch — it feels like a pumpkin beer-pale ale hybrid. Available in cans and at the brewery.
More info: 62 South Erie Ave., Montauk; montaukbrewingco.com
Most unique: Jacked Up’d, from Po’Boy Brewery in Port Jefferson (6.5 percent abv.)
Brewed with pumpkins and coffee, this is a smoky, unique take on pumpkin beer. It’s fleeting, too — only available by the pint or can (no growler fills) at the brewery.
Find it: 200 Wilson St., Port Jefferson Station; poboybrewery.com