On a late Autumn evening, after a long day's work, Eric Wentling gathered up his contribution to the upcoming brew--a quart of locally made maple syrup--and hopped into his Toyota Camry for the ride into the small town of Victoria. Passing the newly opened Enki Brewing, he thought of the pleasant pale ale served there and began looking forward to the results of tonight's endeavor. He and his friend Mike Lebben were to brew a beer that night, but not just any beer--an Imperial pumpkin ale to rival all others. This was to be an epic monster of a beer, malty and packed with pumpkin and pie spices, with an extra kick of the maple syrup and honey to make this a true harvest ale. The fading sun lit ruby highlights from the first few maples to change color this fall, and the long shadows raced by.
Upon arrival Eric ran the gauntlet of hyperactive dogs and met Mike in the basement to prepare their soon-to-be infamous brew session. The sun continued to sink as they began preparation: heating water, doing last minute calculations, and measuring out grains. The two were blissfully unaware of an upcoming visitation of wickedness and evil, brought to bear on them by the silently screaming malevolent spirits of a thousand slaughtered gourds. The first small hint at the horrors to come was when Eric noticed an inaccuracy in their ingredients. Cans of sugared and pre-spiced pie mix glared accusingly at him from the counter top, taunting him with their lack of pure pumpkin flesh. While he traveled back to town center to replace the ingredient, Mike continued to work on his tardy prep work. They should have paid attention to these early signs, but continued about their business without a care in the world.
By the time of his return a bloated full moon began shine in the deepening darkness, bathing his car in it's baleful light. Returning to the brewery, the water was up to temperature, and using Mike's automated grain mill made short work of grinding the massive amount of barley called for in this recipe. The two added the grain to the large mash tun and infused it with warm water, aiming for a protein rest around 120 degrees to help with some of the potential extra pumpkin proteins. They then got to work opening seven cans of pumpkin puree, happily scooping out the thick gelee into a pot filled with warm water. The Curse reared its head when one of Mike's can lids seemed to leap off track and slit his finger, promptly drawing first blood in this battle. Gloving up in his creepy blue nitrile gloves, (like some homebrewing version of the villains from Firefly), to prevent a bloody brew, he kept on like a champ. They both continued to ignore the warnings.
They poured the glistening orange pumpkin slurry into the eagerly awaiting mash, turning it an unusual shade of auburn. The first twenty minutes went according to plan, showing off the efficiency and sparkle of Mike's Sabco brew system. Then the terrors began. With a slow death-rattle, the recirculating mash gasped out its last breath. Despite the thin mash and the excessive use of rice hulls to pad the filter bed of grain, the pumpkin settled into a thick block at the bottom the kettle, preventing all liquid flow through its barrier. Just as this occurred, heavy footsteps rang from upstairs, signaling the presence of Others. The ears of the dogs swiveled to take in this new presence and then they were off like furry rockets to fend off their home from that perceived evil. Mike ignored the noise and continued to battle his system for supremacy--attempting to make that liquid flow and get the temperature up to its next mash step of 156 degrees.
Luckily for them both, the new arrivals were Sarajo--Eric's lovely wife--as well as Matt and Anna Finnesgard. The three of them happily helped to sample the Rogue Pumpkin Patch and Southern Tier Pumpking that Eric and Mike had been sampling prior to the vindictive stuck mash. The mood lightened a bit as these friends added moral support to the continuing battle, but beneath the pumpkin orange surface of that mash lurked even more wickedness and pain. Sarajo braved the dogs to head home, leaving the Finnesgards to hold back the darkness while Mike and Eric pushed the limits of the Sabco to its breaking point. Settling in among the discarded and dangerous cans of pumpkin, the two distracted the dogs and took turns trying beers from Mike's large kegerator. Mike continued to stir up the thick and sturdy mash, getting it to circulate for brief fits and starts before firming up into a copper colored brick. More water was added. Even more rice hulls. All to no avail. With a huge commercial keg filled to the brim with grain, pumpkin and water, there was no way to lift and dump it out either. Mike continued to try syphoning out and blowing back through a tube to attempt to clear the obstruction. At one point while attempting the latter maneuver, a great flatulent gurgle was followed by a huge molten bubble of goo that spattered three feet away to land directly into Mike's left eye, making a mockery of all his efforts. While this was going on, the burner needed to be turned on and off repeatedly to keep a steady temp and burn the bottom of the not-recirculating mash, as well as constantly turning off and on the pump to avoid the terrible grinding sound of a cavitation
Around the time the two had finally arrived at their second mash temperature, came another suspicious entry into the home. This time the heavy and sliding tread on the stairs wasn't the Finnesgards or Sj. Looking frantically about for a weapon of defense (for the two protagonists were beginning to realize that something obscene and calamitous was upon them this dark evening), Mike found only his dripping wooden mash paddle--so like a cricket bat...
Alas the interloper was only Mark Glennon, another member of the local homebrew club, come to claim his prize medal from Byggvir's Big Beer Cup, and only narrowly avoided a paddle to brain pan. Perhaps Eric should have warned Mike of his impending visit. Now five strong, the party continued the endless battle against the pumpkin ale, fueled on ever more high alcohol beers and fear. Always the fear.
The sparge began. The steps prior should have taken an hour and half, but had burgeoned into an evening-long slow crawl of nearly three and a half. Now the two attempted to collect the sweet and pumpkin-rich fluid wort from the mash into the brew kettle, but were again plagued by compression and solidity. Wielding in his paddle like a burly madman, Mike strained against this obstruction. Sweat creased his furrowed brow, blood collected in his gloved hand, and his crimson left eye watered and weeped. The Curse of the Pumpkins Past would NOT win! Mike would drive his ailing body to the finish and force this ochre beast into submission. Eric simply looked on in awe. Soon, the rest of the party slowly disappeared, their absence barely noted during the legendary battle. Had they tired of the show and simply left? Or had something more ominous and sinister transpired? We may never know the details, but eventually Eric and Mike were the only remaining combatants.
The night loomed long and the following day's work was soon to be done. Eric crept slowly away from the manically muttering and cursing Mike. He faded to the periphery, while Mike stoked the fires and paddled his way through the endless brew. With his partner occupying all the attention of the evil spirits, he was able to break the spell and escape the hellish pull. Mike was left to his deranged work, unhinged completely by the events of the evening. He madly punished his body and that mash for another three hours until all 15 gallons of wort was collected. Exhausted, he threw a lid on the mess and collapsed to a troubled slumber, haunted by the melancholy cries of massacred pumpkins.
With morning light came clarity, at least for Mike if not for the murky orange stew that was to become the Imperial pumpkin beer. For having struggled so mightily with the mash, too much proteinaceous material had made it into the final wort. Re-invigorated, Mike fired up the burner...
Have Mike and Eric seen the end of the problems with this batch? Despite the heroic efforts of both, with the final beer be worth the effort? Or will the dreaded Pumpkin's Curse have the last say? We will find out soon, my friends. Soon.
Thanks for bearing with the purple prose, but I figured it was the only way to properly write up a brew session fraught with such troubles. We chose to start with the Imperial Pumpkin Ale recipe from this month's Zymurgy magazine. This recipe is a big one and also involves honey and maple syrup. I managed to wrangle up a bunch of B grade maple syrup from a friend and colleague of mine who has quite the impressive syrup making facility on his property. He has a great website with all sorts of info on syruping and sells his syrup locally under the brand Somerskogen Sugarbush. I like the B grade syrup for cooking and brewing, as it has a more robust flavor and darker color that is normally seen as a flaw. Syrup is a simple sugar and is nearly all fermented out when used in brewing, leaving little of the residual sweetness that one would expect with such a sweet and sticky product. The carmelization of the darker syrup should have a bit more flavor impact though. We will see!
Continuing my effort to taste a whole slew of pumpkin beers this fall I'll mention a few more I've had in the past few days, at least one of them during the aforementioned brew day.
Tyranena Painted Ladies: The commercial description is pretty humorous so I'll include it here. "The Painted Ladies Annual Fling celebrates the renaissance of downtown Lake Mills. Although named for the restoration of the many Victorian storefronts, some of the more adventurous women-folk added a playful twist and dressed as, well, painted ladies. Inspired by these bold and spicy women, we brewed Painted Ladies, a pumpkin and spice-infused amber ale. This fall, make sure you enjoy a fling with a few Painted Ladies." The label includes some awesome tarted-up Victorian pumpkins to continue the theme.
Aroma: Sweet maltiness. Definite nutmeg up front with hint of ginger and allspice. An earthy note present as it warms, but not extreme.
Appearance: Crystal clear copper color. Large off-white head that is very persistent.
Flavor: Sweet and malty but not cloying. As with aroma, the nutmeg is front and center, with an allspice/clove "burn" coming up last. This has a slightly astringent earthy or musty finish, but doesn't detract from overall enjoyment too much. I think that flavor is the actual pumpkin in the beer. The spicing on this one is borderline too high.
Overall: Not a bad beer. Probably the best beer I've had from Tyranena in a while. I honestly had kind of written them off over the past few years after I'd tried a couple of duds. This one is high on the spices, so if you hate them then you likely won't like this beer! Scores a 3.5 of 5 for me.
Chatoe Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale: The description makes note of growing the pumpkins for this beer on Rogue's own farms in Independence, Oregon, then driving them to the brewery for the beer quickly after harvesting. Interestingly my cousin works for the city of Independence. Small world. Not much info on the actual beer specs though. I have it on fairly good authority that this batch may have been last year's release. Also, this review was scrawled hastily upon a yellow sheet of paper with a fading pencil during our fight with the pumpkin beer. So there.
Aroma: Up front nutmeg, followed by ginger and cinnamon. No hop aroma (strange in a Rogue beer, but OK for style). Sweet sugary malt and a hint of honey.
Appearance: Deep copper to nearly brown in color. There is a slight haze to it. A huge off-white head that is largely persistent.
Flavor: Sweet maltiness throughout the taste. Nutmeg and cinnamon are the dominant spices in this one, and come off present but somewhat muted or faded. A subtle roastiness sets this one a bit different from many of these beers. No hop flavors.
Overall: A bit bland and muddied, but not a bad beer. Lacks complexity. If this is indeed last year's batch the spices may have faded and left this one a little blah. I do give it a 3.5 of 5 though, still drinkable and better than some others.
Next Up: An update on the Punkacolypse Brau and reviews of more pumpkin beers than you can shake a stick at! If you are bored in the mean time check out Sj's jewelry blog for a cool Autumn challenge she took part in HERE.