Pumpkin beers are kind of cute, but a little on the boring side, now that everyone seems to be rushing one to market. To differentiate themselves, some breweries have been adding an extra ingredient or two. So far this autumn I’ve seen a pumpkin wheat beer (Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat), a pumpkin beer with roasted malts (Starr Hill’s Boxcar Pumpkin Porter), a pumpkin beer with a touch of butternut squash for added body (Schlafly Pumpkin Ale) and a high-gravity pumpkin ale aged in bourbon barrels (Heavy Seas’ Great’er Pumpkin Imperial Pumpkin Ale).
Taking the kitchen sink approach is DC Brau, which is collaborating with Utah’s Epic Brewing Co. on an imperial pumpkin porter (dubbed Fermentation Without Representation) containing bourbon vanilla beans, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger.
How about a pumpkin India pale ale?
Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn officially refers to its fall seasonal as Autumnation, but the ale measures about 70 international bitterness units, well into IPA territory. In addition to canned pumpkin, Sixpoint seasoned this ale with 800 pounds of freshly picked Citra hops (a much-in-demand variety prized for its citrusy and tropical fruit flavors) per 50-barrel batch, air-freighted from the Pacific Northwest.
Autumnation is available locally in kegs and 16-ounce cans. Jeff Gorlechen, who handles promotions for the brewery, believes it’s simultaneously the first wet-hopped beer in a can and the first pumpkin ale in a can.
This unique mash-up of styles probably wouldn’t have worked if Sixpoint had added the usual pumpkin pie spices, cinnamon and nutmeg. That would have produced an unpleasant clash of sweet and bitter sensations.
Instead, brewmaster and owner Shane Welch added white peppercorns and fresh ginger root. (Gorlechen believes the ginger is responsible for the slight throat burn that follows a few vigorous sips.) The result is a considerably drier brew than the usual pumpkin ale. “We wanted to avoid that cake-batter, cloying sweetness,” says Gorlechen.
As for the pumpkin, it asserts itself modestly as a starchy vegetable sweetness underlying the melange of spices.
So is the pumpkin a fifth wheel, a superfluous ingredient? Gorlechen notes that last year, when Sixpoint’s distributors pressured the brewery into coming up with a pumpkin brew, he and Welch experimented with three different recipes: one incorporating canned pumpkin, a second with roasted whole pumpkin and a third with no pumpkin at all. In blind taste tests, “we couldn’t tell the difference,” admits Gorlechen.
The pumpkin does have one major effect: It colors the beer a brilliant orange. At 6.7 percent alcohol by volume, Autumnation is sufficiently full-bodied that you could float a layer of inky-black Guinness on top to create a Halloween-themed half-and-half.
Sixpoint takes its name from the six-pointed star or hexagram that is not only a Jewish religious symbol, but also an alchemist’s and brewer’s symbol. The six-year-old craft brewery produces 21 brands on a regular basis, about 10 of which showed up on an Alexandria pub crawl last week to mark Sixpoint’s introduction to Northern Virginia. Its Bengali Tiger IPA has a restrained, earthy, slightly orangey flavor, almost like an English India pale ale, even though it’s hopped with the more aggressive American varieties Citra, Columbus and Horizon.) Hopheads might also enjoy Spice of Life , with its prickly grapefruit flavor, or Righteous Ale, which derives its long, lingering peppery/minty aftertaste from malted rye.
Sometime during the first quarter of 2012, Gorlechen says that Sixpoint will introduce a series of higher-gravity beers in 10-ounce cans, beginning with a barley wine. The beers will be geared towards the solitary drinker who arrives home on a chilly winter night and wants something warming, but not too much of something warming. “In bars, the higher-alcohol beers come in eight-ounce pours,” Gorlechen notes. So why not a smaller can for the takeout trade?
I don’t think he saw my post a couple weeks ago on the need for smaller packages for imperial-strength beers. But somehow we’re on the same wavelength.
Addendum: After submitting this column, I came across Flying Dog Brewery’s seasonal release, The Fear. This mahogany-colored brew, at 9 percent alcohol and 48 bitterness units, manages almost to be a pumpkin black IPA, with a spicy hop character and a toasty graham cracker sweetness from carabrown malt. The bar has been raised.