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."

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