The Best Pumpkin Beers For Fall 2014

La Parcela is a pumpkin beer we can get behind

When the leaves start turning, we begin to crave dark seasonal beers, ones rich and malty like robust Baltic porters and toasty Munich dunkels. But every year, there's one fall style that we just can't seem to get behind—those pervasive, profusely spiced pumpkin ales.

That said, there are a few pumpkin beers that we actually love—ones that aren't as sweet as candy corn or that taste like liquefied pumpkin pie—and one of them is Jolly Pumpkin's La Parcela, a lightly tart pumpkin farmhouse ale heady with cacao and clove and packed with a rich squashy flavor. Like all of Jolly Pumpkin's beers, this one is aged in oak barrels and spiked with a proprietary mix of souring bacteria and yeasts. Unlike any of its other beers, La Parcela actually contains the brewery's namesake ingredient.

"We heard the same old joke, year after year," co-owner and brewer Ron Jeffries says. "'Jolly Pumpkin doesn't actually make a pumpkin beer!'" Indeed, for more than four years, Jolly Pumpkin was a pumpkinless brewery. (The name, Jeffries says, doesn't really mean much; it just happened to be the silliest one on a list that he and his wife, Laurie, compiled before opening the brewery.) "It didn't even occur to us that people would think we made pumpkin beers until after we opened and we started pouring at festivals," he says. "People were perplexed when they asked for the pumpkin beer and found out we didn't have any."

That changed one fall six years ago when Jeffries got a call from his friend Dick Cantwell, owner of Elysian Brewing in Seattle and a professed pumpkin whisperer who makes more than a dozen different gourd beers. "Dick throws this big pumpkin festival every year," Jeffries says, "and he thought it imperative that a brewery called Jolly Pumpkin participate in it."

It took some convincing, but Jeffries eventually got to work brewing La Parcela, fretting over details like what blend and level of spices to use and, most importantly, what form of pumpkin to put into the beer. "I wanted to use roasted pumpkin, but at our scale it would have been impossible," he says. Cantwell assured Jeffries that using the canned stuff was perfectly acceptable.

At first, Jeffries, who has an aversion to overly spiced beers, went light on the traditional pumpkin pie seasonings, adding just a dash of cinnamon, a few cloves and a pinch of nutmeg. But soon he was getting angry emails and phone calls from irritated customers asking why the beer didn't taste like what they expected. "We had to dial it up so that the spices were more pronounced," he says.

When pressed, Jeffries admits that La Parcela goes great with desserts like apple pie, plain vanilla ice cream and, of course, pumpkin pie. And he says it's now one of his brewery's most popular seasonal beers. In fact, pumpkin beers in general have become so popular that this year he had difficulty sourcing pumpkin. "We always sell a boatload of La Parcela," he says. "This time of year people just want pumpkin in their beer."

Jolly Pumpkin's La Parcela is available for a limited time. $9 to $25 for a 750ml bottle.

Two other barrel-aged pumpkin beers we love:

Almanac Dark Pumpkin Sour
San Francisco's Almanac Brewing is known for its so-called farm-to-barrel approach, taking local Bay Area produce and putting it into batches of barrel-aged beer. Dark Pumpkin Sour, one of the brewery's two pumpkin ales, is a tart and refreshing pumpkin ale brewed with heirloom gourds and aged for 12 months in red wine barrels. ($10 for a 375ml bottle)

Two Roads Roadsmary's Baby

Named after the devil child in Roman Polanski's classic film, this seasonal pumpkin ale is aggressively spiced but surprisingly dry for the style. Several months of aging in rum barrels give it a smooth, vanilla-laced finish. ($13 for a six-pack)