It seems like every year more and more breweries, big and small, are offering pumpkin ales as fall selections. Only a few years ago, Shipyard Pumpkinhead was the only one of which I was aware. This fall, I was surprised to find a rather large selection on a recent trip to Hannaford, with contributions from every major Maine brewery and many others from around New England.

Perfect for the colder part of autumn, pumpkin ales offer a unique fall flavor that complements the crisp breezes and changing leaves, and gets us thinking about the magical pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving.

Stepping out of the Maine bubble, I have chosen two pumpkin ales from well-known breweries, Blue Moon and Smuttynose, in an attempt to distance myself from the sometimes too-sweet and over-the-top Pumpkinhead that many of us have tried with varying degrees of enjoyment. I have found, interestingly, that in addition to being unique and fall-specific brews, pumpkin ales can also be great beers.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale ($8.49 for a six pack at Hannaford)

Blue Moon brewery is best known for its wheat-style Belgian white, commonly referred to solely as "Blue Moon," and often accompanied by a squeeze of orange. In addition to the Wheat Ale, Honey Moon Summer Ale and Blue Moon Winter Ale, the Harvest Moon pumpkin is the brewery's fourth distinct beer style.

Pouring a coppery, amber-orange with a slightly orange head, the Blue Moon screams pumpkin. Interestingly, the nose, while slightly sweet and spicy, indicates little to no pumpkin flavor. This lack of pumpkin character parallels the taste, with a subtle malt subsiding into a semi-sweet and spicy feeling, more characteristic of the crystal malt used in the brew than pumpkin. A slightly pumpkiny and spicy sensation soon arises, revealing growing allspice, clove and nutmeg elements that carry through to the finish.

Overall, the crisp, medium-bodied elements of this beer make it more suitable to a Maine fall than the company's other brew, the Belgium White. In this respect, the beer succeeds. As a pumpkin beer, however, the Harvest Moon falls flat on its face. It exhibits subtle spice and pumpkin flavors that fail to enhance the ale's relatively mundane background. Had I not known that this beer was a pumpkin ale, I would have had a hard time identifying the flavors, other than the miniscule hints of spice, and would have remained unimpressed.

Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale ($8.49 for a six pack at Hannaford)

Located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Smuttynose brewery is literally miles from being a part of the Maine brewery family. Offering 15 styles of beer, Smuttynose has proved itself adept at successfully producing a myriad of diverse beer.

The Pumpkin Ale poured very cloudy, with an orangey-copper color which is lighter than that of the Harvest Moon. The nose held unmistakable elements of both pumpkin and spice, with a slight malty sweetness that gave it an almost pumpkin pie-like richness. The taste carried stronger pumpkin and spice elements throughout than Harvest Moon, perfectly balancing the two sensations. The sweet, malty character proved to be a perfect opening for a not too sweet, but just right blend of pumpkin, spice, and actual beer flavors, which arose in the middle of the swallow. While the pumpkin character was stronger, the spices were also more complex, with a definite hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. The finish paired the spice with a perfect level of hoppy character, cutting off any lingering sweetness and accentuating the spice itself.

Overall, the Pumpkin Ale was a much "bigger" beer in terms of flavor, and yet carried through a complex and skillfully executed balance of the spice and pumpkin with typical elements of an ale. I enjoyed the Smuttynose far more than the Harvest Moon because it carried a unique and special pumpkin spice flavor while remaining a drinkable and enjoyable beer. It did not feel as if anything were being sacrificed as far as flavor or body. The unique balance of flavors makes the Pumpkin Ale perfect for a crisp fall football game, a hearty fall meal or as an after dinner beer.

In sum, the Pumpkin Ale was hands down a better beer and an exceptional offering from Smuttynose, while the Harvest Moon fell short of its mark.