Long, long ago, in a land--well, in this land--it was the case that summer was the primo beer season. Mystifyingly. (As I now know--and probably you do, too--that's when the bulk of beer is sold.) But for beer geeks, the most interesting beers are those that go best with a cold day. For us, extra-pale ales are fine and good, but they can't hold a candle to the meatier, burlier beers that start appearing around Halloween. Fortunately, brewers seem to share this view, and they release scads and scads of specialty beers around this time of year. I have been working my way through some of them, and I'll try to do better about getting up respectable reviews.
Today's beer, Elysian Night Owl, a spiced pumpkin ale. Pumpkin ales occupy a class of Rodney-Dangerfield beers along with light fruit ales and chili beers--they don't get no respect. Yet they are popular, and people enjoy seeing them come around each year if for no other reason that to celebrate the change of season.
There's nothing about pumpkin that mandates a beer must taste like pumpkin pie, and yet this seems to be the near-universal interpetation of style. A light-bodied beer, usually malted with some Munich or Vienna malts to give it an orangey hue, and a handful of the usual spices--nutmeg, cinnamon, clove. Personally, the style is not for me. I wouldn't mind having an Oktoberfest along with my pumpkin pie, but combining the two seems unnecessary.
I took a flyer on Night Owl because 1) the brewery is one of the most trustworthy in the country, 2) it's been getting strong reviews this year, and 3) I haven't had a pumpkin beer in a few years and began to wonder if I'd unfairly maligned the style in my memory.
On the positive side, Night Owl is one of the best pumpkin ales I've ever tried. Lesser breweries will suffuse an uninspired beer with spices and call it good. Elysian played down the spice a bit and allowed the malt and squash to come out in the open. As an ingredient, pumpkin is nice--it adds a character not unlike malt, but a bit more bready; I imagine it contributes body as well, but this may just be my mind over-interpreting. The base beer is clean and well-made, if just a touch too light for my taste (though exactly like the other pumpkin ales I've tried). The spices are strong in the nose, but less so on the tongue--they suggest pumpkin pie without feeling the need to get mean about it.
I had it with a friend who loves pumpkin beers and he gave it very high marks. This, I think, is the key point: if you like pumpkin ales, you won't find a better example. If you wish you liked them and buy a bottle of Night Owl hoping to be convinced, good luck to you. No matter how good Elysian is, this is still a pumpkin beer. I'd rate it a B+ for style (and declare the style a dud).
Malts: Pale, Munich and Crystal
Other Ingredients: nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, ginger and allspice; green and roasted pumpkin seeds, as well as pumpkin in the mash, boil and fermenter