Crack open a nice, autumnal pumpkin beer, and you can pick up notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, mace, cardamom, ginger, brown sugar or vanilla bean. But I challenge you to detect much of the star ingredient's delicate flavor.
Pumpkin does lend color and sweetness. But by the time the squash has been mashed, boiled and fermented, the pumpkin essence vanishes like spirits before the dawn.
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Many brewers are finding other ways to kick up their pumpkin beers a notch or two, adding specialty malts and fermenting to alcohol levels of 7, 8 or 9 percent by volume. Imperial pumpkin ales are almost as common as normal-strength versions. A few innovators are romancing the pumpkin even further through barrel-aging and wild fermentations.
Last year, DC Brau in Washington teamed up with Epic Brewing in Salt Lake City to brew Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter. DC Brau wasn't able to fit the brew into its schedule this year, but Epic is sending 22-ounce bottles and kegs to D.C., assures Mallika Filtz, Epic's communications director. The porter is made with dehusked Carafa malt and chocolate malt, which lend a richness without an acrid aftertaste, and is spiced to be "reminiscent of freshly baked gingerbread," says Filtz.
Boston Beer, meanwhile, has released the malt-forward Fat Jack Double Pumpkin, brewed with a pinch of beechwood-smoked malt. There's not enough to give the beer the bacon-maple aroma of German rauchbiers -- just a hint of burning leaves in the finish.
Is it better for brewers to use canned pumpkin or whole fruit? That's a matter of contention among brewers and beer bloggers. Evolution Brewing in Salisbury, Md., gets pumpkins for its Jacques Au Lantern fresh from a local market; Evolution's Wally Hines says that produces a "more subtle, realistic" pumpkin flavor. Evolution ferments with a Belgian yeast strain that adds a gentle fruitiness to the layers of spice.
Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., introduced its Chatoe Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale last year. The beer, according to Rogue President Brett Joyce, will resurface in early October in a bright orange 750-mililiter bottle. Part of Rogue's GYO ("grow your own") series, the ale was made with organically grown pumpkins plucked from a two-acre patch next to the brewer's hopyard in Independence, Ore., sliced, roasted in a pizza oven and plunged into the brew kettle.
"I don't think anyone could brew on the scale we do using whole pumpkins," says Nathan Arnone, public relations director for Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, N.Y. He estimates the brewery will ship about 8,000 barrels of its imperial-strength Pumking during August and September, more than 10 percent of Southern Tier's entire output for 2012. Using drums of pureed pumpkin eliminated a lot of grunt work and enabled the brew crew to pump out beer before this year's crop ripens, satisfying retailers who want the product on their shelves before Labor Day.
Use of puree doesn't appear to adversely affect the flavor. Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, calls Pumking his favorite example of the style, praising it for its "graham cracker" flavor and "great whiffs of vanilla that remind me of whipped cream."
Some breweries use barrel-aging as a flavor boost. Great Pumpkin, the supersize pumpkin ale from Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore, has a big brother called Great'er Pumpkin that spends three weeks mellowing in bourbon barrels from the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, Va. A cask-conditioned version of Great'er Pumpkin will be the piece de resistance at a pumpkin beer festival set for Oct. 27 at Kloby's Smokehouse in Laurel, Md.
"Rum-soaked pumpkin pie" is how Ted Whitney, national sales director for Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo., describes the flavor of Rumpkin, aged six months in oaken barrels that previously held Gosling's Black Sea Rum. Whitney expects this year's batch, set for a Sept. 29 release, to clock in at a punishing 18.1 percent alcohol. The brewery uses a "ludicrous" amount of pumpkin, 10 pounds per barrel, and measures out the spices carefully to avoid having the limited-edition beer "taste like a bunch of Red Hots."
Ghoulschip from Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine, is a rare example of an unspiced pumpkin beer. The name is a play on "coolship," a shallow, open vessel that resembles "a big brownie pan," according to Allagash's communications director, DeeDee Germain. Brewery workers stomped locally grown pumpkins by foot, then ran the pieces through a wood chipper to reduce them to shreds. The mash was allowed to sit in the coolship overnight, allowing the ambient yeasts and microbes to settle in. It was then fermented with an ordinary ale yeast.
A single 20-barrel batch was brewed in 2008, says Germain, and the beer has been evolving ever since. A recently uncorked sample was tart and earthy, like a Belgian lambic, with a light toastiness from an addition of pumpkin seeds and a faint note of molasses.
Your best bet to sample this rarity might be to book a trip to Seattle for Elysian Brewing's Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, set for Oct. 19 and 20, where Ghoulschip will be among 60 pumpkin brews available for sampling.
Allagash owner Rob Tod is considering a second batch, says Germain, but the wild fermentation proceeds "at a snail's pace" and "it takes a year, maybe two, to come into its own."
Like Linus holding vigil for the Great Pumpkin, you'll have to be patient.
• Greg Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.