Wednesday, September 26, 2012

One more from the pumpkin patch

Staying with the topic of pumpkin beers for a little bit ...

A very big thread that runs through craft beer finds brewers surveying the landscape and looking for ideas they can use to create a beer. (OK, yeah, that's how a lot of life works – drawing upon influences to produce something you call yours.)

Pro brewers do it; so do homebrewers. Call it homage ... call it borrowing. Call it knowing a good idea when you see it.

Sal Emma and Terry Leary, a homebrewing duo from Cape May County, fit all three.

Making a pumpkin beer and adding the usual pie spices to the rim of the glass, like salt on a margarita glass, sounded like a worthwhile technique to Sal, who encountered it when he was served a pint of pumpkin beer at Sweetwater Tavern, a Northern Virginia brewpub, a few years ago.

The idea sounded pretty good to Terry, too, and thus, their fall pumpkin ale was born last year. A couple of weeks ago, the pair went about the business of reprising it for this autumn, brewing it in their 2-barrel setup, using sweet South Jersey pumpkins in their mash and some honey in the boil.

(This past spring, the two won a homebrewer contest sponsored by the Tun Tavern and At The Shore weekly entertainment tabloid published by The Press of Atlantic City newspaper. See the accompanying video below. Terry and Sal followed up their contest-winning robust porter with a killer IPA that could give Tröegs Perpetual IPA a run for its money.)

Some background ...
Sweetwater, a restaurant-brewery in Sterling, Va. (with a couple other restaurant locations), began making the pumpkin ale a year after opening its doors in the mid-1990s.

Brewer Nick Funnell, the guy who's been in charge of Sweetwater's beers since the beginning, mashes with pumpkin and adds a blend of traditional pumpkin pie spices in the brew (the spices come from a merchant local to the brewery).

And for a garnish – the part that stuck in Sal's mind – Nick says the serving glasses are rimmed with roasted pumpkin seeds and more pie spices to, well, spice up the drinking experience.

The glass trick, as you can imagine, lets the drinker control the spice experience, either by constantly rotating the glass for more, or drinking from the same spot for less.

Because everyone's palate is different and personal preferences matter.

That's the part fresh in Terry's mind. His preference is for less spice, as in just pumpkin in the mash. The spices go on the glass.

"We grind up (salted) pumpkin seeds," Terry says, "mix the ground seeds with nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon – create a dry mixture of that – then reduce apple cider to a semi-thick roux, dip the glass to about quarter inch in, then dip it in the seeds and spice."

Notes Sal: "We grind 'em real coarse because you want to be able to chew the pumpkin seeds."

For their 2-barrel batch, they started with about 160 pounds of grain – Briess 2 Row, some biscuit malt (you want that pie crust notion), some caramel malt and special roast. To that mash, they added 30 pounds of pumpkins bought from a Cumberland County farmstand. (Last year, they used Libby's canned pumpkin.)

"The pumpkin variety is Long Island Cheese, also know as Cheese Wheel, an heirloom known for its sweetness," Sal says. "They were grown by the Bertuzzi family in Vineland. The seeds from those pumpkins will be in the glass-rimming treatment. Even the seeds are sweet."

The pumpkin adds a some color to the beer, Sal says, "a little bit of essence of pumpkin. It's not a real pumpkiny beer. Terry thinks it's more an aroma kind of thing."

In the boil, they added 15 pounds of honey (hops included Chinook, Willamette and Centennial, with a dash of homegrown Cascade at the very end for aroma) for a beer (around 6% ABV) that is shaping up fine, with that pumpkin essence in the nose.

"(The) beer smelled and tasted great at racking," Sal says, "very malty, not over the top
in hop bitterness but a nice, long hop finish."

Halloween's not far off; neither is their beer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gourd in beers: who's drinkin' 'em?

Iron Hill's Chris LaPierre with bourbon pumpkin ale
Talk pumpkin ales and you can quickly divide craft beer enthusiasts into two camps: those who annually look forward to the brews that have become the dominant fall seasonal these days, and the one-and-done folks who are happy to move on after drinking a single pint.

But there's a third group that falls into the mix: the cocktail and chardonnay crowd who look forward to pumpkin ales as their moment for crossing over in to the beer world.

"I definitely think there are people out there that the only beer they'll drink this year is pumpkin beer," says Iron Hill's brewer Chris LaPierre. "This is a kind of beer that wine drinkers, martini drinkers, people that say they don't drink beer ... you know, don't like beer ... (they) will drink pumpkin beer."

Iron Hill taps its flight of pumpkin ales this Saturday, and that third group drinkers are very much represented in the crowd that has made IH's Welcome, Great Pumpkin event the chart-topper as far as the brewpub's lineup of events through the year goes. In fact, in terms of sales, the Great Pumpkin event has eclipsed IH's  Belgium Comes to West Chester Belgian beer fest held at the nine-pub chain's West Chester, Pa., location each January. (Featured beers include The Great Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Pumpkin Ale and Bourbon Imperial Pumpkin Ale. For the record, IH's West Chester location does a Gathering of the Gourds pumpkin beer salute.)

It helps that South Jersey's reception of IH in 2009 turned the company's Maple Shade location its busiest. But for all of the factions that surround pumpkin beer, there is definitely something about the style that people find alluring.

"Just look at how crazy people are about it," Chris says. "Look at the coffee shops, everyone's got a pumpkin latte. I'm sure all the fast-food places probably have a pumpkin milkshake, or whatever. People just go nuts for it.

"Outside of brewpubs, look at how much earlier pumpkin beers are coming out. Every year they're out two or three weeks earlier. Everybody's trying to get theirs out early, trying to get it out before the competition. There's just something about that style."

Pumpkin beer is a balancing act for IH Maple Shade. It's appearance on the taps collides with Oktoberfest. The märzen is still a hot ticket, because Oktoberfest hews to tradition, as far as style goes. It's almost always a copper-colored strong lager, with its sweetness held in check by a dose of noble hops.

Pumpkin beers, on the other hand, get to spread out.

"I used to say that Oktoberfest is our fastest-selling seasonal. In a way, it still is because it's not cannibalized the way pumpkin is – imperial pumpkin, Belgian pumpkin," Chris says. "They're all going to steal from each other a little bit, whereas Oktoberfest is just one style. It makes my life pretty difficult for the fact that those are by far our two fastest-selling seasonals, and they both happen to be out at the same time."

That said, Chris does try to ensure Maple Shade's pumpkin ale makes a reprise deep into the fall, after Halloween. Call it pumpkin management.

"We used to have our pumpkin beer on just before Halloween, to just after Thanksgiving. It's popularity has made that difficult to do. I have trouble keeping up with it," he says. "So what I do now is put one on just before Halloween. Then there's usually a little bit of a gap, then we try to get another batch in and bring it back for Thanksgiving time."

Spice vs. pumpkin flavor
A debate that involves pumpkin beer is whether the beer flavors are enhanced by the pumpkin, the spices (i.e. clove, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon) or both. Chris' take is: If a brewer indeed uses pumpkin in the mash (not all do, some go the spices alone), that flavor will come through. (However, he concedes he's never put it to a blind taste test. And for the record, Chris uses about 300 pounds of pie pumpkins, that after processing for brewing purposes end up as about 80 pounds in the mash for a 12-barrel batch.)

"Certainly if you get a pumpkin latte or burn a pumpkin candle, there's not going to be any pumpkin in it. It is all about the spices" he says. "A lot of people don't bother putting pumpkin in their pumpkin beers, because they say all people are looking for is the spice anyway.

"My argument is, if you smell what this restaurant smelled like at 8 o'clock in the morning when they're roasting the pumpkins up in the convection ovens, there's no way that flavor's not carrying over into the beer. I do think there's more substance to it."