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Thirsty Thursday: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Punkin Ale

Photo by Ed Miller.

Welcome to Thirsty Thursday, a weekly column where we pick a beer from our fridge and review it, because in a world where two new breweries launch every single week, sometimes we need some help sifting through all of the hops.

With everything going on, it’s no surprise 2020 has become the year of the throwback, from seeing old movies at the drive-in to TV reunions and so much more.  It’s even led many people to stop and appreciate all of life’s little things, like those beers you once loved that have gotten lost on store shelves in favor of a weekly quest to find trendy hard-to-find efforts.  I’m one of those people, trading new rotating releases, in large part, for beers of yester-year – the ones that might seem ancient now but offer a nostalgic deliciousness.  And long before autumn became riddled with pumpkin beers, one beer trailblazed the way, sparking the trend.  It was Dogfish Head Brewery’s Punkin Ale and I knew I wanted to revisit it during some fall festivities.

I grabbed a six-pack of the 12-ounce bottles right when it was released and set a couple back in the fridge – a self-restraintive test I don’t normally do – for when it came time to carve jack o’lanterns.  The four others were set aside for anything triggering that fall feeling.  And it had been so long since I had Punkin Ale, that it was kind of like trying it again for the first time.

If you’re a craft beer drinker and you’re not familiar with Dogfish Head, chances are you’ve been living under a rock for the last 25 years.  Founded in 1995 along Delaware’s coast by Sam Calagione, the “off-centered” company started as the country’s smallest brewery but has since evolved into one of the biggest, as its beer is now available in all 50 states.  With a focus on brewing beer using culinary-based ingredients, and staying mainly outside of the Reinheitsgebot, Calagione introduced the world to the Imperial IPA, made a Gose that develops Kodak Super 8 film and even had his own show on the Discovery Channel which showed the process behind some of the brewery’s innovation creations.

I’ve even spoken to Calagione about the brewery’s history, highlighted in a new book.

These days, Dogfish Head – which recently merged with Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams – has nine year-round offerings and at least a half dozen others slated for scheduled releases over the course of the 2020 calendar year.  One of those seasonal releases is Punkin Ale, a 7.0 percent Brown Ale with hints of pumpkin, brown sugar and spice.  Named after the popular Delaware pumpkin-catapulting event, Punkin Chunkin, it was actually first concocted six months before the brewery opened its doors and won first place at the 1994 Punkin Chunkin Recipe Contest.

Punkin Ale’s label has changed over time, as to be expected with a beer that’s more than two and a half decades old, and this year’s iteration features an eye-catching look.  It was created by Oregon-based artist Dan Stiles, with a purple theme and three old-timey-looking animals flying in a pumpkin blimp over what appears to be London.  The label gives the ABV and the beer’s specific style but no other information, which is a little disappointing for my inner beer nerd – especially considering a wealth of information on it can be found through the brewery’s website.

When I cracked it open, I immediately went in for the sniff.  There’s just something about pumpkin beer that lends itself to your nose, helping to perfectly set that fall mood.  The aroma is uber strong on the nutmeg and I have no problem with it – but I also got some pumpkin and just a hint of sweetness, which I believe was brought about by the malts.  I definitely enjoy the smell here, a standard that I’ve now come to expect from other pumpkin beers I sip on this time of year.  Next came the pour and while it’s not exactly the sexiest for Instagram, it has the desired look.

Punkin Ale poured an orange-amber color, with an off-white head.  I noticed a slight fog to it, which could be a little residual from the filtering process.  There wasn’t a ton of head, a little less than two fingers worth, but this isn’t some kind of crazy dry-hopped IPA.  Sure, it dissipated quickly but, even still, the carbonation looked like it was solid.  And it ultimately proved to be there until the very last sip.

All of this stuff means nothing if the taste isn’t there.  This light-to-medium bodied beer mimics the aroma pretty well, with a strong taste of nutmeg that leads to pumpkin and malt on the back-end.  There’s also a slight sweetness mixed in there as well, while the dryness that Punkin Ale finishes with leaves you wanting to go back and start all over.  I wouldn’t say that the drinkability here is off the charts, however having two or three in a sitting is no problem.  Find me a beer in this style that’s crazy drinkable and I’ll call you a liar.

There really aren’t many flaws with this beer.  It might have a twinge of too much sweetness but at this point I’m splitting hairs, because it’s a well-orchestrated beer.  That might just be why it’s become one of the gold standards when it comes to pumpkin beers and it has been for decades.  After I took my notes on Punkin Ale, I wanted to see its BeerAdvocate score.  The website itself gives it a very good score of 88 and the average score is 3.95 out 5, based on 6,828 ratings.  I would go a little higher than the mass drinkers on this one, giving it a 8.5 out of 10.  Punkin Ale has the smell, it has the taste and it’s just as drinkable as any of the thousands similar to it, and although I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect beer, for me it remains synonymous with fall.

Stay tuned next week, because I might try something from your favorite brewery.