I’m a big fan of Halloween. As a kid, I loved getting dressed up in a costume. Coming up with an idea, pulling together the various pieces and accouterments, occasionally teaming up with another fanatic — it was all great fun. And I not only relished what I looked like on the outside, but I also enjoyed playing the part in my imagination. Like Snoopy disguised as the World War I Flying Ace, I always got lost in what I was doing. One year, I dressed as a wounded soldier, complete with gauze bandages and homemade fake blood. I thought I looked so authentic that, a week afterward, I could swear the “bullet holes” in my arm still really ached.
Years later, as a parent of young children, I have been known to don a costume or two. One of my favorites was playing Little John with my kids, who, then aged 6 and 4, went dressed as mini Maid Marian and a half-pint Robin Hood. On the other hand, the Hagrid get-up I concocted once to accompany Harry and Hermione was perhaps a little too convincing — that year Halloween night was a muggy 70 or so degrees, and walking around the neighborhood carrying at least one toddler and wearing several layers of clothing, including a heavy woolen coat and full beard, was enough to persuade me to quit getting into the spirit, so to speak.
What I’ve never been a fan of, honestly, is the candy. I liked to get a lot of it — the thrill of the hunt, the mystery of what you will get going house to house with family and friends, that’s certainly as much a part of the fun as being out in the spooky night air. But I never cared much for eating what I hauled in. I’d get home, count out the number of pieces (though I don’t know why), pop one or two in my mouth, and then shove the whole big pillowcaseful under my bed — where it stayed virtually untouched for weeks, in some cases until Easter (another cloying, candy-laced holiday). Some years I suspect I had Easter candy stuffed away until Halloween. You get the picture.
This year, knowing that there will be many sweets in the offing (and I won’t be able to resist sneaking at least a few), and figuring that I will want some kind of adult-strength beverage to accompany my munching, I decided to see what would make the most appealing candy-and-quaff pairing. The logical choice for a spook-tacular drink? Why, pumpkin ale, hard cider, and sweet stout, of course — the bonbons of the fermented-beverage trade. I picked several varieties of each kind and sipped and chewed, contemplating the fusion of flavors, all the while handing out treats to and admiring the dazzling crush of fancifully festooned children parading by.
I started with the ciders, the lighter of the tonics, both in flavor and texture. As my trusted spirits expert, Jed from the Wine Source, told me, the process of cider fermentation and the recipes are as varied as the kinds of apples grown and differ widely from country to country. So, to keep things simple, I chose a mix of bottles from two relatively similar yet far-flung locales: the U.S. and the U.K. I first encountered cider, often drawn from the tap like ales and bitters, when I visited England in the 1980s. Each region had its own varietal, and I tried as many as I could. The draughts from Taunton (in Somerset) stand out as topnotch in my mind, but none was available where I shop. Strongbow (crisp and slightly sweet) also was a favorite, as well as Woodpecker (dry and sweet, like a toffee apple), and luckily both can be had on this side of the pond. Fellow islander, Magners Original, which hails from Tipperary, was not as sweet, more complex and, at 4.5% alcohol, very drinkable. Not surprising, Yankee-made Cider Jack from Middlebury, Vermont, had a bold, juicy quality that was refreshing. Most craftbeer-like, though, was J.K. Scrumpy’s Farmhouse Organic, Flushing, Michigan, which comes unfiltered and naturally fermented in a 22 oz. bottle. It’s labeled “USDA Organic,” contains no sulfites, and tasted the closest to cider fresh from the press. The best pairing for ciders were the fruity-sweet candies, like Starburst and Twizzlers, and (not surprising) the caramel- and toffee-based treats, such as Goetze’s, Milky Ways, and Heath Bars.
Few standards seem to govern the makers of pumpkin ales. I tried several brands, including Wild Goose Pumpkin Patch Ale, Saranac Pumpkin Ale, and Lakefront Pumpkin Lager — all were pretty tasty. But, in terms of defining a typical, balanced “pumpkin” or “spice” flavor, they were all over the map. The Goose’s “special blend of spices” was so well merged that the fragrances quickly dispersed after a few sips, while Saranac’s understated “hints” of cinnamon and vanilla were overpowered by the malt and hops. And, as a lager, though unique, the Lakefront was just too bubbly and grassy to be enticing. Standouts were the Punkin Ale from Dogfish Head and Harvest Moon from Blue Moon: The Dogfish brew tasted so much like the sublime fall dessert which shares its name I could swear there was a slice of pie floating in the bottle; and the Blue Moon is notable more for being standoffish — it was like drinking nutmeg-flavored Coor’s Light, which, in a way, it is (scary). The pumpkin-enhanced beers paired best with the more flavorful candies, like Kit Kats, Butterfingers, or anything with caramel, but the combination of Punkin Ale and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was downright devilish.
As is the case with any meal-ender, you should save the best for last. And both stouts proved the rule. The label on the Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout, from Cape Ann Brewing Company, Gloucester, Massachusetts, calls the dark beer’s flavor a “subtle combination,” and that’s exactly how it hits the palate — lightly, with a hint of pumpkin and spices that matches the stout’s hearty, malty sweetness. Equally eerily delicious is Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout. Like liquid dessert, this drink tastes the way I imagine Wonka’s wondrous chocolate river did (at least before Augustus Gloop fell in, that is): brisk, rich, smooth, and creamy. Just about anything from Hershey’s product line paired well with both stouts, especially Milk Duds and Whoppers — but nothing could beat the subtle pleasure of a plain chocolate bar.
And, not to get all treacly on you, but the best part of the evening came next: standing by an outdoor fire pit, talking with good friends, staring up into the cold night sky, listening to the laughter and squeals in the distance, imagining that something otherworldly might be snooping around in the woods nearby. Frighteningly good fun.
As always, tell us what you think. What are your favorite memories of Halloween — treats or tricks? Are there other autumn seasonals that you think everyone should try? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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Originally published October 31, 2008