The outside temperature is falling, with a hint of nip to the nighttime breeze. Bees and yellow-jackets flit about and investigate a vigorously boiling kettle of wort. The harvest is upon us: gardens full of ripening tomatoes; hop cones dangling on their tall bines; gourds enlarging in all their glory beneath the yellowing leaves of their parent plants. Yes folks, Fall is here in Minnesota, and with it the resulting liquor store shelves and bar taps accumulate a plethora of seasonal pumpkin beers.
Perhaps I'm a sucker, but with Autumn being my favorite season, this style of beer has always appealed to me. This was one of the first types of beer that my wife would drink and still has a special place in her heart as well. Over the years I have found that most beer drinkers are very polarized on their assessment of pumpkin beers--either loving or hating them with little lee way in between. I entirely understand this wide divide. The style is focused on spices, (usually nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and ginger) in various proportions. A lot of people have dislikes for some of these flavors, and frankly it is difficult to craft a beer that is not overwhelmed by them. Strangely, Sj will not touch a pumpkin pie with a 10 foot pole, but will happily swill down pumpkin beers. Go figure. Maybe it harkens back to the time we were in Seattle and happened to visit Elysian Brewery on the day they were staging their Great Pumpkin event, where they had nearly 20 different pumpkin beers on tap, many of them amazing.
I have brewed pumpkin beer three times in my life. The first was way back in my early extract days and the recipe I had called for adding a can of pumpkin to the boil. One can only imagine how that travesty turned out: murky, chunky and disgusting would a be accurate. The starches and sugars in the pumpkin do not get converted and your beer looks and likely tastes nasty. The second try was using 2 cans of pumpkin (no spices added) in the igloo cooler mash tun once I had learned to do all-grain brewing . This was my first experience with a stuck mash--as all the pumpkin formed a solid mush at the bottom of the mash tun and blocked up my false bottom. I eventually had to dump the whole mess into another set of pots and then stirred it back into the mash tun very carefully. Slow-- but it worked. that beer was also less than stellar, but much of that was from my hour long struggle with the mash and loss of proper temperature during the process. The third time was the proverbial charm. I used about 2 small pie pumpkins, decapitated and disemboweled, cut into 1 inch gory pieces, and baked in the oven to reach a carmelized brown color. Don't burn it. Add this to the mash with 3/4 pound of rice hulls to avoid my previous sparge disaster. Maybe do a protein rest at 122 for 20 minutes and then ramp up to your desired mash temp. Give it at least 60 minutes to make sure all the starches are converted...I went 75 minutes. Add your spices at flame-out, or better yet, make a tincture of spices in vodka and add it slowly at bottling so you don't overdo the spicing.
This fall I plan to try as many of these short lived beers as I can and give my two cents on them. If you hate pumpkin beers you may want to tune me out--but I'd recommend that you try a few of these out and see if you agree with me. Comment on the blog and tell us what you think of them! If you are one of my local friends and have an unusual one you want to share--I'd love to share! I thought I would try to do one huge entry on it, but reckon that would get way too wordy, so I'll try to stick to a few at a time.
Let's start on the low end of the spectrum with Wasatch Pumpkin Ale. This is a 4% ABV beer, brewed that way due to local Utah laws that limited the alcohol by volume of beers to under 4%. I believe there has been some change to those laws allowing higher gravity beers in the last few years, but don't quote me on it. I had this beer at The Happy Gnome last week, and it was one of nearly 15 pumpkin beers on tap at the time. Wow, I love that place! The beer has a pleasant orange hue with a fairly light head that fades quickly. Hints of ginger, nutmeg and clove in the aroma, along with a subtle earthiness. The flavor mirrors the aroma nicely, with a bit of true pumpkin flavor and light spicing. Balance is key for these beers and I think they have done a wonderful job of showcasing the pumpkin and the spices without overdoing it. The mouthfeel is a bit low due to lower gravity, but not thin. Also, this is one of the only pumpkin beers I've tried that I'd actually have a second pint of. I give this one 4.5 stars, mainly because of it's drinkability. Good job Wasatch!
My next beer doesn't get such high marks. Tommyknocker Small Batch Pumpkin, also tasted at The Happy Gnome, was less than thrilling. It has a deep amber to nearly brown color, darker than usual for the style. It has molasses in the recipe which could account for the darker color. The aroma was notable for nutmeg, sweetness and a hint of bandaid. Upon tasting it had an upfront sweetness, followed by an acetic tartness leading to a harsh finish. This one was either infected or fermentation went horribly wrong. I know for a fact that The Gnome cleans their tap lines religiously, so I think the issue was with the keg of beer itself. The sourness really clashed with the spices and made this one hard to stomach. Looking at Beer Advocate, the beer gets fair marks, so mine may be an outlier. I rate this one a 2 of 5 for being unintentionally sour.
Last in this installment is Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, one of their limited release beers. To give this one credit I did discover last year's batch lurking in my beer cellar, but it clocks in at 9% ABV so I figured it would still be drinkable. Aroma has malty sweetness, nutmeg, and an earthy tartness. The color is a slightly hazy deep orange, with a large white head. Flavor has an initial burst of sweet malt, fading to a pleasant nutmeg character. This has some Sweet-Tart flavors in the tail end mixed with a musty earthiness. Very notable alcohol burn and a bitter astringent finish. Starts great, ends not so good. Perhaps the age has hurt this one, but I haven't had it fresh so I just have to judge based on what is in my glass! I give it a 2.5 for the unpleasant finish--Sj and I didn't finish it.