Friday, November 2, 2007

Smashing pumpkins (and biases)

October’s done, now November reigns, but orange is still the color of the season.

As in pumpkin. In your beer. But only for a while.

Scanning the Garden State beer landscape, we found pumpkin beer flowing from at least four brewpub taps: Basil T’s of Toms River, Harvest Moon, Triumph and the Tun Tavern. We’ve downed pints at three of the four and have the lone holdout in our sights.

Three of ’em are ales, one’s a great pumpkin, and one – the Tun’s – went lager.

And with that said, we have a small confession at this point: Pumpkin beer isn’t our thing.

We'll drink it, and we appreciate it – even defend it when someone questions its credibility as a beer (read: Bud and Coors Light drinkers fussing over fruit in beer). But coming on the heels of Oktoberfest beers (an easy favorite), and looking ahead to big winter beers, pumpkin has always been a blink: a pint, a thank you and goodbye. (We also don’t go for pumpkin pie; it's just us …)

But this fall, we decided to tack a different course and take a new look at our orange-and-amber seasonal friend; it’s beer, and brewers go to some trouble to put this style on the bar (read: pumpkins in the mash and the accompanying spices require a good brewery cleaning afterward).

Pumpkin zest
We warmed up by going outside (figuratively) the Jersey pumpkin patch, taking home a six of Post Road, Brooklyn Brewery’s one from the vine. That was good enough to get rolling, but it’s bottled, not fresh from the tap.

Next stop Atlantic City, the Tun Tavern. Brewer Tim Kelly enlisted the pub’s kitchen help to cut and roast 20 basketball-size pumpkins for this 6.4% ABV lager, a scaled-up recipe from his homebrewer files that goes light-handed on the spices – no allspice, just nutmeg, clove and ginger, with the latter the most prominent of the three. (Hops are Nugget, Perle and Fuggle; yeast – Bohemian lager; the beer cooled its heels for three weeks; Tim confesses a little longer would have been preferred, but it wasn't in the cards.)

This is pumpkin beer. You could smell pints of pumpkin from the far end of the bar, or at least on the day after the shuttered Sands casino came tumbling down in a demolition lollapalooza (Oct. 18th) we could (maybe it's the power of suggestion). That’s pretty much how Tim planned it, pumpkin loud and clear, spice mixed into the background.

Roll on, pumpkin
Meanwhile, an hour north of AC, Basil T’s in Toms River pours a slightly muted pumpkin ale (80 pounds of pumpkin in the mash, Willamette hops, allspice, cinnamon and ginger). Brewer Dave Hoffmann’s session ale (5.5% ABV) starts beery and finishes with a pumpkin flavor. It’s an easy two-pinter. Or three.

Go west …
By the time we got to Triumph (in New Hope, Pa., but pumpkin’s on tap at their Princeton location, too) our old way of dealing with pumpkin was gnawing at the edges of our new commitment. In a word, we caved. We ordered something else first. But you would, too, at the sight of a real-ale ESB served at cellar temperature – unfiltered, low-carbonation, and beckoning with hops and malt flavor – on the menu. So the first few steps through Triumph’s pumpkin patch were a little off track. We came around eventually to the flavor and aroma in question – pumpkin and spice. But old biases and habits don’t easily disappear. The ESB was just irresistible.

Great pumpkin
Harvest Moon probably has the most interesting of the pumpkin ales. Brewer Matt McCord has already gone through a batch brewed to his primary pumpkin ale recipe and is now pouring an imperial version on George Street in New Brunswick.

This one’s a sipper (and the one next in our sights, the next one on our list to try), 9% ABV, and served in 12-ounce snifters. Matt mashed with 130 pounds of pumpkin (including 100 pounds of fresh pumpkin) and spiced things with nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. (Northern Brewer and UK Fuggle hops in the kettle.) But here’s an interesting twist: Matt tossed some whole vanilla beans into the serving tank to give things a graham cracker crust kind of finish.

So this month think pie. In your beer. We are. Finally.