Brewer’s Corner: A Season for Change

In his new series about beer, Locke McKenzie, inspired by the Elysian Brewery’s Pumpkin Ale Festival, tries a few brews that challenge the traditional notion of what beer can be.

“This whole thing started as sort of a sit around drinking beer kind of idea,” Dick Cantwell, head brewer at Elysian Brewery, says about his annual pumpkin beer festival. “We started with six of ours and six guests and then over the years it has ballooned. This year we brewed nine pumpkin brews of our own and then we had 22 guest pumpkin ales from other breweries.”

My conversation with Cantwell has been a refreshing one. It reminded me why American beer culture is so unique. It is open to everything — even the absurd — and is therefore growing in directions that traditional beer enthusiasts seldom consider. While drinkers and brewers around the world find pale ales, pilsners, and even Belgian Tripels to be acceptable varieties of beer, many wouldn’t feel the same about the beverages that appear at Elysian’s Pumpkin Ale Festival.

According to Cantwell’s tally, their festival has featured sour pumpkin ales, barrel aged pumpkin ales, Belgian styles, lager styles, pumpkin aged pumpkin ales (yes, that’s beer aged inside of a pumpkin), spontaneously fermented pumpkin ales, and even a smoked pumpkin ale. When Cantwell told German brewers about the beers he has experimented with, he was met with laughter.

Upon contacting Dick, I too was skeptical about the legitimacy of the more extreme craft brews. One of my first evenings back in the United States this October, a friend bought me Screamin’ Pumpkin Spiced Ale from the Michigan Brewing Company.

“This is a great fall beer,” he said.

I didn’t agree, but I was curious. The first sip was like a mouthful of pumpkin pie. It was thick with heavy vanilla notes and a nutmeg-cinnamon spice. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought I was drinking over-sweetened, under-spiked liqueur. It certainly wasn’t ale, but what the hell was it? Before I went any further, I decided to do a tasting.

I sat down with three other people and ran through the five different pumpkin ales. Along with the Screamin’ Pumpkin, we tried Ichabod by New Holland Brewing, Punkin by Dogfish Head, Jaw Jacker by Arcadia Brewing Company, and Pumking Imperial Pumpkin Ale by Southern Trer Brewing Company. We had two questions in mind: 1) Do you like it? 2) Does it taste like beer?

Though none of our selections was as exotic as a smoked pumpkin beer, the flavor palette was diverse. At one end Dogfish Head’s Punkin presented a solid, malt-based ale with a mild pumpkin finish to compliment the malt. On the other side, Southern Trier’s Pumking Imperial was like drinking a vanilla-pumpkin milkshake. The results were scattered when it came to quality. Most people found the more traditional tasting Dogfish Head more appealing than the sweeter varieties, but we all also prefer traditional IPAs and Lagers for normal drinking. When we discussed whether each beer met our qualifications for being beer, the results were unanimous. Pumking Imperial and Screamin’ Pumpkin simply weren’t real beer. They were too sweet and too spiced. Liqueur, yes. Beer, no.

When I asked Cantwell if he had ever tried a pumpkin ale too radical to consider beer, he said, “I don’t think I have really encountered one that has crossed that line.”

But one of the beers we tested was like a milkshake! How could that possibly be beer? I was incredulous, which is sad, considering I get the same doubtful reaction when I bring American beers to Germany. I have my German friends taste my favorite java stout or IPA from the U.S., and they either gag or scoff. Sometimes they do both. Now I was doing the same thing. As Cantwell pointed out, our American standards for beer often tend to stem from our European forefathers rather from our colonial roots.

“I think it is a valid standard to keep in mind, that is, wanting it to still be beer. But beer has been made out of so many different things besides just barley malt… Pumpkins were used in colonial brewing, as were other adjuncts, simply because of the availability of imported malt or reluctance to import from Britain.”

Not only is pumpkin ale beer; this is American beer at its finest. At our inception, we refused let Europe control us, and beer brewing was no exception. Although these traditions may have died for a couple hundred years, the craft brewing movement has rekindled our passion for unconventional varieties of beer.

“Ten years ago pumpkin ales were almost universally spiced like pumpkin pie, and I think people have gotten beyond that… When we first started doing the pumpkin festival for example, it wasn’t that the beer was not good, but it was sort of like ‘Whoa, look at this, everyone brewed a pumpkin ale.’ I think you can see that in the quality of American brewers now. It used to be enough of a novelty to just do it, but now it’s gotta be top notch.”

The craft brewing movement is maturing quickly, and festivals like Cantwell’s are an important part of that maturation process.

“What we’ll do out here is contact people a few months in advance and say, ‘hey, do you want to brew something for this?’”

Together the brewers show off what they can do and also pressure each other to do it right.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, can’t I just spice a regular beer and call it a pumpkin ale?’ and I say, ‘No.’ To be in this festival it has to have pumpkin in the brewing process.

“I’ve had a few breweries who have had to call me up and say, ‘Oh, we, we tried just putting some pumpkin into a firkin or a keg of finished beer and it turned to mud,’ and I was like, ‘well, I’m not surprised.’”

As my conversation with Cantwell showed time and again, even the most off-the-wall beers have to be brewed seriously.

This is a challenge for brewers, but it is also a challenge for drinkers. The maturation of American beer culture has to involve the consumer. They are the ones that have to buy the beer. This makes these beer festivals all the more important. They bring people together to talk, laugh,and try some 31 different beers (at least that was the count at Cantwell’s Pumpkin Festival this year). With such a wide variety, they should offer everyone something to fit his/her palette. If not, they should at least promote a better awareness that these beers exist.

“I want to do that other places too, I want to go to Portland next year and call some of my brewing friends down there and have them come up with things.”

The more these things go on, the more the brewers and the drinkers will define a brewing tradition just for them.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.