Friday, October 29, 2010

Carving a different kind of pumpkin beer

Six-packs of pumpkin beer hit the store shelves long before autumn and the first leaves fell from the trees, while a few pub brewers held off, waiting until late this month to tap their versions of the seasonal and eclipse the annual Märzen invasion that is Oktoberfest.

As is typical with this gourded rite of fall, most of the pumpkin beers in the patch this year have been ales, with fruity aromas rippling with spices that entice the senses before the first sip washes over the palate.

Except one. It's a lager.

At Atlantic City's Tun Tavern brewpub, the pumpkin beer is crisp and brisk, like the fall season itself, with just enough spice and zest suspended in a clean lager profile that allows the delicate flavor of the 230 pounds of roasted pumpkin that brewer Tim Kelly used to come through.

"Most of the pumpkin beers you get are ales," Tim says. "They're heavily spiced, like pumpkin pie. A lot of them don't even have pumpkin in it – because what people equate is the spice – and that's fine.

"I like a good pumpkin beer. Weyerbacher has a bronze-medal imperial pumpkin ale. It's delicious; I love it. But really, how many of those are you going to sit down and drink? They're more of a dessert beer – you're going to have one."

However, Tim's version, even at 7.6 percent ABV ("imperially evil for Halloween," he calls it), beckons a second round. Perhaps a third. And that's by design.

The Tun's pumpkin lager comes from Tim's days of homebrewing and an idea that rests on the notion of less is more.

"I went for a lager yeast as opposed to an ale because ales generally lend a lot of their own characteristic flavors to beers, particularly through fruity esters, whereas lagers tend to be clean," he says. "Pumpkin is a very subtle flavor, if you can taste it at all. I wanted to make a beer that tried to bring the pumpkin out. I didn't want to mask it with ale flavors, so I wanted to ferment it clean with a lager yeast, spice it very lightly."

Tim introduced pumpkin lager to Tun Tavern patrons in 2007, during his first year in Atlantic City. It didn't exactly wow the crowd, whose tastes trended toward the ale and its pumpkin pie bouquet. But a funny thing happened the subsequent fall: when Tim made the ale those patrons pined for, most wistfully remembered the lager version.

"I made it the first year and heard nothing but complaints from all the people who wanted the sweet, spicy ale," he says. "So the second year I made the sweet, spicy ale and heard nothing but complaints about where's that wonderful lager you made last year."

So the lager's back, in all its smoothness, just in time for Samhain, and a little beyond. (Tim supposes pumpkin brews have a three-week window in which they're in demand. Thus, he brewed accordingly.)

As a lager, the brew leans a little toward steam beer, a warmer fermentation to let the yeast have a bigger say in the finished product. But Tim steps the process down from 63 degrees after three days to about 55, reining in the yeast signatures that, within ales, help buoy the aromas of the traditional pumpkin-friendly spices (nutmeg, clove, ginger, cinnamon and allspice).

"I'm not trying to go totally clean with it, but I am trying to avoid a lot the esters and other ale characteristics," he says.

Right now, the pumpkin lager joins another of Tim's homebrew recipes gracing the Tun's taps. A couple weeks ago, his wee heavy Scotch ale debuted. At 7-plus percent ABV, Tim's is quite rich, with deep folds of caramel and just a hint of warmth on the back of the throat.

"It's the first time I've made it here. I tried to be as traditional in the production of it as possible. I fired up the kettle before the wort went into it, so I got some good caramelization off that (and added) a little bit of peated malt to it," he says, suggesting the beer be allowed to warm up some in the glass before drinking.

Looking ahead, Tim and brewer Gretchen Schmidhausler of Basil T's in Red Bank plan a collaboration brew, "something with a dark chocolate, with some end notes like cinnamon and a hot pepper, like an ancho or pablano, something along those lines." (Last month, Gretchen marked a decade as Basil's brewer.)

Until then, there's a pumpkin beer that stands out in the patch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Jersey beers in Europe

Jersey brewers get a European audience.

Climax, Cricket Hill and High Point sent beer to the three-day Mondial de la Biere, held this past weekend in Strasbourg, France.

The Jersey brews were part of the event's American beer tent, which included a sampling of craft beers from across the US (Troegs, Weyerbacher, Allagash, Sierra Nevada, Left Hand, Smuttynose, Boston Beer and Blue Point, to name a few).

Roselle Park-based Climax sent its Hoffmann Oktoberfest and its IPA, while Cricket Hill ponied up its Colonel Blides ale as part of its flight of brews.

"We sent over the Colonel because that's a really an English-style beer. We figured Europe, English style ... it works out even though the French and English don't get along. We sent over the East Coast Lager; we sent over the American Ale," says Cricket Hill founder Rick Reed. (Mondial's Web site lists the CH beers as the Fairfield brewery's summer ale, IPA and fall seasonal.)

It was a repeat appearance for High Point, which sent its Ramstein Classic dunkelweizen to the event. Last year, Butler-based High Point sent its Classic and Blonde wheat beers.