Monday, October 17, 2011


An American Beer Classic or a Travesty?

For such a young country we have contributed so much to world culture...good and bad. Jazz first sounded from clubs in the US south, but from the Northwest came the disco beat. To help the children of the world play more safely, we created Nerf balls and Super Soakers, but the Manhattan Project was devised and realized in an American think tank. De Niro and Pacino were native New Yorkers while Keanu grew up in the surf of Hawaii.

This dichotomy of awesomeness and suckiness also pervades the American beer scene. The terroir of the Pacific Northwest imparts wonderful citrus and pine notes to the hops varieties transplanted or developed there and, the argument of which brewery first did it aside, the "black" IPA was first brewed in an American brewery. But then we unleashed onto the beer-drinking world a concoction that, like most other beer geeks, I will seek out every September for some unknown reason. Even though I don't like the style, it am compelled to grab the new seasonals for some reason. Maybe it's to see if a miracle has occurred and they're better this year than last. Maybe I'm just a masochist or I cave to peer pressure too easily. Who knows? I speak, of course, of pumpkin ales.

Necessity to Nostalgia to Nasty

It goes without saying that when British colonists arrived in the new world their first rule was that of survival. A new world brings different climates and soil conditions. Many fruits and vegetables they knew from their homeland would not grow in American soil and no one was sure what was edible, what could kill them and what would merely make them crap and puke out their own body weight for three days straight. Friendship with the natives helped in this manner and larders became filled with indigenous species: among which were turkey, corn, oysters and that massive, orange squash we call the pumpkin. It is TOO a squash...I thought it was a gourd until I looked it up.

Once their needs were fulfilled they would have done as anyone else would have done and turned their eye to the luxuries they missed from home. They would have attempted to make their favorite dishes substituting ingredients from the area and probably would have attempted to make tea from the leaves and roots of the varied flora. And it is certain that they attempted some sort of alcohol, for we know that they did indeed brew beer. But with what ingredients?

Growing barley and malting it would have been difficult, if not impossible at first. Slashing and burning forest to make ariable fields was time-consuming and the first priority for those fields would have been food crops. So the colonists had to find other fermentable sugars to feed the yeast. The easily-grown pumpkin fit the bill nicely and pumpkin ale was born.

But then Manifest Destiny expanded our borders and the farming community increased the number of available products. Ingredients for everything from cosmetics to weapons to snake oil abounded. Barley and wheat became available for brewing from the farms and also from trading. The shipyards began to crank out sailing vessels and trade opened up with Europe, allowing cherished malts and hops from England and Germany to come to American ports. There was no longer a need to use a lowly gourd squash for brewing and the practice was phased out in favor of beers with familiar flavors.

There was a period where you'd probably be hard-pressed to find a pumpkin ale, but we are a nostalgic lot for a country just over 235-years-old. Tragic eighties fashion has made a return in "retro"wear. Disco, while it still sucks, has become nostalgic and is met with enthusiasm in some nightclubs. We have a penchant for looking back on bad stuff that we let die and reviving it. I can't explain this obvious self-destructive behavior, but it's what we do.  
The "Original"

In 1985, Buffalo Bill's Brewery decided to drag the rotting carcass of pumpkin ale out of its well-deserved resting place. All well and fine. Then, tragically, the trend spread and today we face a virtual tsunami of pumpkin ales every Fall. An alarmingly large percentage of the craft brewers now offer a pumpkin ale and I, for one, wish that they'd stop and put this trend back into the grave. But, for a group of people that like to innovate and try things that no one else has, our craft brewers must develop feelings of inadequacy if one brewery is making a style that they don't. One person starts the wave and then everyone grabs their boards and jumps on. It doesn't matter if that wave is made up of a coppery brown, cloudy fluid that has the taste of astringent spices and gourd innards. The brewers follow each other and we, as beer drinkers, snatch up our favorite brewery's seasonal offerings like obedient sheep as if it was cipro and your neighbors were receiving letters filled with a mysterious, white powder.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I am not a fan of these "pumpkin pie in a bottle" brews. If I want pumpkin pie, I'll buy a pumpkin pie. However, I try a good cross-section of them each year to see if anyone is doing anything different and each year I'm largely disappointed. I have given some of them high reviews on Beer Advocate, but that's because I review to the style and some are better than others and there are even a few that are refreshingly different...very few.

There are so many of them that I can't cover all of them here. So I concentrated on a few that are readily available in Northern Jersey each and every year.
The Satndard
Dogfish Head's Punkin may be middle-of-the-road for the "pumpkin pie in a bottle" lot, but it is the standard. It's the beer that helped launch DFH and also the one that took pumpkin ales from being done by a few scattered breweries trying to be noncomformists to a national craze of comformity. This beer may be near and dear to Sam Calagione's heart, but I do blame Punkin for this horrid revival. Buffalo Bill's revived the beast; DFH put it in a top hat and tails and made it perform "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Packs a whallop
Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin took the typical pumpkin ale and ramped up the sugar load. The ravenous yeast went to town and the ABVs went through the roof. This pumpkin ale will shortly make you forget that you're drinking a pumpkin ale, which is a good thing in my book. But it is also one of the better balanced pumpkin ales, with the malts and spices sharing equal billing.

Nicely different
Southern Tier's offering in this category takes a different tack and tastes more of roasted pumpkin seeds than it does of pumpkin pie. The spices are minimal and the flavor of toasted pepita pervades. Perhaps they were inspired by Mexican cooking or maybe they were aiming for something different. Either way, this is one of the few pumpkin ales I enjoy despite the fact that I turn my nose up at the pumpkin seeds The Geisha roasts every year. Maybe that's because I saw the goo they were fished out of.

Where's the pumpkin?
Sixpoint does one called Autumnation. The can says that it is "flavored with spices and pumpkin", so I am lead to believe that the pumpkin is not used primarily for its fermentable sugars, but as a flavoring agent. This one is heavily hopped and the pine and citrus flavors mask any flavor of pumpkin and even quells some of the spices. It would be interesting to taste this done without the pumpkin to see if there's really any difference, but they may have to label it an IPA if they bothered to label it at all.

Astringency Ale
Bluepoint usually does pretty well with beers flavored with fruits so I thought it would stand to reason that they'd do a nice job with pumpkin. I was wrong...well sort of. It's not so much the pumpkin that is the killer in this beer it's that their base beer is lighter than most and it can't really stand up to the astringency given off by the spices.

Stop the bourbon barrel madness!
Heavy Seas puts out two pumpkin ales every year. Although I have yet to try Great Pumpkin I have had Great'Er Pumpkin which is the Great Pumpkin aged in bourbon barrels. The pumpkin is very evident in this one and the spices bring pie to mind but this beer clearly illustrated that not all styles are conducive to bourbon barrel-aging.

The best NJ can offer?
I'd be remiss to exclude beers from Jersey in this entry so let's discuss River Horse's Hipp-O-Lantern. It is certainly one of the more cleverly named pumpkin ales, but the product itself is about as run-of-the-mill as DFH's Punkin without the heart-warming history, quality controls and consistency.

Where's the American Ingenuity?

Every year schools, companies, service organizations, magazine, web sites, newspapers and communities hold pumpkin carving competitions. Some of these are broken up into categories like scariest, funniest, most creative, best theme, poltical, company appropriate, etc. If you go to the internet and look up winners of these contests you will see some creative thinking and phenomenal pumpkin carving skills. Sadly there only seem to be three categories in pumpkin ales: 1) sucks, 2) doesn't suck so much and 3) not horrible.

I don't doubt the skills of our craft brewers but the originality seems to be lacking (with noted exceptions). I imagine that will change since, rest assured, groups of homebrewers have come up with pumpkin brews heretofore unheard of. I'd love to see some of these surface and if you homebrew or belong to a club that has come up with a unique pumpkin ale, please brag about it in the comments below.

In the spirit of historical nostalgia, has anyone tried brewing one without hops but with a gruit made of herbs and spices that would have been available to the colonists?

What does lager yeast do with the sugars found in pumpkin? Has a jack-o-lager been brewed yet?

Here's an idea...get some vanilla ice cream and make a float...a pumpkin pie ale-a mode. This could be one good way to dispose of the rest of the four- or six-pack that you may have been forced to purchase.

If we're going to insist on brewing these noxious beers year after year then let's truly hit them with the American stamp of in-your-face! The British developed the IPA, but we took the IBUs into the stratosphere and brought our aggressively flavored hop varietals into the mix. The Germans perfected wheat beer but we went big and brewed the first wheat wine. The Russians clamored for stronger stouts, so the British made them Imperial stouts and then we got our hands on it and added coffee or aged it in bourbon barrels. We took porter and made it with smoked malts. We're not content to EVER leave well enough alone. So I want to see this spirit applied to pumpkin ales. Just because we invented the style it's sacrosant? I can't believe that and I hope that perhaps a few more will come around that I might actually enjoy drinking. Then again, like Linus, I might be waiting for a long time as pumpkin ale fans mock me.

United Feature Syndicate

1 comment:

  1. And what appears on DFH's blog today?