Pumpkin fear and Halloween beer
You are a fear prisoner. Yes, you are a product of fear. – Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko
Halloween is just around the corner, and in home breweries across the world, brewers are enjoying their seasonal pumpkin beers.
Mine isn’t ready yet. I kegged it a few days ago and it should be ready to drink by the weekend. Later than I had hoped it would be ready, but still in time for Halloween.
Just getting this beer brewed meant overcoming a fear tucked deep in my psyche between the memory of watching the movie Poltergeist when I was six years old and my recurring nightmare of showing up naked to school on standardized test day. Why was I afraid? Decision paralysis. With so many options and things I thought could go wrong, I was always intimidated by the idea of brewing pumpkin beer.
Google “pumpkin homebrew”. Do it now; I’ll wait.
You probably noticed two things: 1) how many of the recipes have names inspired by a prominent 90’s alternative rock band (“Smashing Pumpkin Ale”, “Pumpkin SMaSH”, etc.) and 2) how many different ways there are to brew it. Fresh pumpkin or canned. Pumpkin in the mash, or boil, or secondary. Or no pumpkin; just spices. And which spices? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, clove, allspice, chai tea. All of the above. None of the above. Then there’s the reported complexity factor of working with pumpkin as an ingredient. It’s thick, it’s gummy, and by most accounts is a hassle that mucks up your brew day, threatening stuck sparges if added in the mash or high wort loss to trub in the kettle or fermenter.
It was all too much. A clear path to success never presented itself, and I’m just not a “jump in and see what happens” kind of guy. So year after year, paralyzed by fear, I let September tick by until it was too late to brew pumpkin beer in time for Halloween. But as I’ve said before, raising a baby has emboldened me as a brewer. And since for Halloween 2012 I overcame my lifelong fear of Poltergeist by watching it for the second time in a year, I figured for Halloween 2013 I should conquer another crippling fear. So I took a deep breath and built a recipe, trusting that the result would at least technically qualify as beer.
As it turns out, my old fears were unfounded. My first pumpkin beer was laughably easy. My sparge didn’t stick and I hit my target OG exactly. Based on the samples I’ve tasted so far, the beer is great, tasting just like liquid pumpkin pie in a glass.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In mid-September, I brought the ingredients together. At the top of the marquee:
- 3.75 lbs (4 – 15 oz cans) Organic Canned Pumpkin Puree
I’m always amazed by how many “pumpkin” beer recipes leave pumpkin out and just use pumpkin pie spice. Some brewers who go this route claim pumpkin has little flavor and little convertible starch, thus adding virtually nothing to the beer that makes up for the hassle of working with it. Well, those brewers are welcome to brew “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” beers however they want, but I believe you can’t call something something unless that something has that something in it. “Pumpkin” beverages that trick your tongue with spice-based sleight of hand belong in paper cups with green mermaid logos. Craft and homebrewed beer should be honest.
So for me, whether or not to use pumpkin was never really a question. But “how” was. Adding it to the mash tun sounded like an interesting twist on my brew day, so I did. I considered roasting whole pie pumpkins and using the pulp, but price, availability, and the added prep work steered me toward canned pumpkin instead – pure pumpkin puree, that is, not canned “pumpkin pie filling” which has other stuff added to it.
Pumpkin puree’s high density means it has a very high thermal mass. So when adding it to the mash it takes more heat – hotter water or more hot water – to raise it to a target rest temperature. To counter this, I preheated the pumpkin to 154°F on the stove top while the strike water was heating outside. Leaving the puree unattended for a few minutes while I checked on the strike water produced a fantastic unintended result: some pumpkin stuck to the bottom of the saucepan and burned a little, imparting a caramelized/roasted flavor to the puree. I’ll do it on purpose next time.
In the mash tun, I mashed in the grain – the “crust” of my liquid pumpkin pie:
- 11 lbs Maris Otter (nutty, bready)
- 1.25 lbs Caravienne (light caramel, residual sugar)
- 1 lb Victory (toasty, biscuit)
- 0.25 lb Crystal 150L (dark caramel, raisin)
- 0.5 lb Rice Hulls (to aid sparging and counteract the pumpkin’s gumminess)
After I stablized the mash at 153°F with grain and water only, I mixed in the “quick-roasted” pumpkin. Preheating turned out to be a good idea. The mash didn’t drop temperature when the pumpkin was added.
After mashing for 60 minutes, I sparged (very smoothly, thank you rice hulls) and sent it all to the kettle, where I added 6.7 AAU of Hallertau at the 60-minute mark and Irish Moss at the 15-minute mark. With 1 minute left in the boil, things got interesting when I added a pumpkin pie spice blend of my own design:
- 2 Cinnamon Sticks (whole)
- 1 tbsp Crystallized Ginger (minced)
- 1.5 tsp Allspice (whole berries, crushed)
- 0.75 tsp Nutmeg (whole, grated)
I hit my OG target of 1.068 and pitched 17 grams rehydrated Safale US-05. Chico yeast made short work of the fermentables and flocculated out around day seven. I tasted the conditioning beer after two weeks, pleased to taste spice and and a vegetal squashy pumpkin-ness that flies in the face of the “pumpkin doesn’t add any flavor” argument. The only thing missing was the grandma’s-kitchen spice aroma I was hoping for. So I made a spice potion from 8 ounces of vodka and the exact same spice blend I used in the boil (see above). That steeped for 18 days in a covered Mason jar before I added it at kegging time. FG was 1.017 for a calculated 6.7% ABV.
I see no reason to buck the trend of naming pumpkin beers after a certain Chicago alt-rock group. But I do think it’s time we get a little more creative with our references. So I christened my beer Melancholy Bill’s Infinitely Sad Pumpkin Ale. Have I forever raised the bar for pumpkin beer names? Have I paid sufficient homage to the season for spooks with a name that sounds right out of a ghost story told by flashlight? Or am I just a dork?
You decide. I’m okay with anything. After all, I’m raising my glass of pumpkin homebrew to a victory over one more fear this Halloween.
A taste of local at the Texas Craft Brewers Festival
Fiesta Gardens in East Austin was the hoppiest place in town on October 6 as about two dozen breweries from all over Texas gathered for the annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin. Featuring over 115 beers, the event promised to be a carnival of discovery. I walked through the gates holding my tasting glass eagerly, like an explorer taking his first steps on a newly discovered shore with a trusty saber in hand.
The format was a familiar one: a booth from each brewery in attendance (arranged in alphabetical order, wow) offering pours of their most popular and/or most interesting beers. $20 bought admission, a 4 oz. plastic tasting glass and six tickets, with additional tickets available for purchase at two for $3. Most of the pours cost one ticket, with some of the rarer/higher-gravity offerings going for two.
I sprung for the $65 VIP pass. It didn’t come with any additional tickets (bummer), but I did get a T-shirt and imperial pint glass along with noon entry, two hours before everyone else. The early entry was worth it, because the place got nuts at 2:00 when the gates opened to general admission. VIP’s also got a “meet-and-greet” round robin tasting in the main pavilion from 1:00 to 2:00. Brewers and brewery representatives walked around the pavilion with pitchers, pouring samples and answering questions.
I love talking to brewers who have a real passion for brewing. The ones who are visibly energized by talking to kindred spirits. The ones whose eyes light up when asked why they chose one yeast strain over another, or who get excited when you taste something subtle in the beer that they were specifically trying for. They’re the stewards of our community, the true shamans of our tribal craft brew culture. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery, Diane Rogness of Rogness Brewing Company, Jud Mulherin of Circle Brewing Company and Grant Wood of Revolver Brewing Company for stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to talk to me – one of many admirers clamoring for their time – about their ingredients, their craft, and why they do what they do.
The beers themselves presented a fascinating snapshot of where Texas craft brew is today. Several things became apparent over the course of the day:
- Sour beer no longer a thing? The event website boasted “at least four sours”. That’s a much smaller number than I would have predicted a year ago, when sours were seemingly the next big wave in craft brewing. But now it seems Texas brewers are looking elsewhere for innovation. Real Ale Scots Gone Wild and Austin Beerworks Einhorn Berliner Weisse were on tap along with some sours from Jester King, but I didn’t see anything on the menu that I hadn’t tried before. I made a beeline to the Jester King booth for what I thought was a new sour – the Viking-inspired Gotlandsdricka – and got a surprise. Jeff Stuffings informed me his Gotlandsdricka was intended to be a modern interpretation, not a historically accurate recreation of the ancient ale, and was clean-fermented with just Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I’m a sucker for anything Nordic, and I liked it a lot, but I’m still curious to taste the sour version they may release in a few months.
- Flavorings are where it’s at. For a region so rich in German heritage, Texas brewers sure don’t know the meaning of Reinheitsgebot. Spices and fruits abounded. Rogness OST Porter with coffee and coconut and Yogi Amber with chai spice, Thirsty Planet ChiGoatle Amber with peppers, Revolver Blood & Honey Wheat with blood orange zest and spices, and Jester King Gotlandsdricka with sweet gale and juniper all made impressions on me. Even Reinheitsgebot champions Circle Brewing have jumped into the flavor fray with Smokin’ Beech, a refreshing Rauchbier with a bacony character from malt beechwood-smoked according to a traditional Bamberg process that Jud Mulherin described to me in reverent detail.
- Tea is the new coffee. Coffee porters and stouts remain popular, but Texas brewers are starting to notice coffee’s hot stepsister from across the ocean, with very different takes on the concept. Live Oak poured an Oaktoberfest infused with lapsang souchong China black tea, lending a vegetal smokiness tailored for slow sipping. Jester King poured their kombucha farmhouse ale Buddha’s Brew. Rogness Yogi Amber doesn’t actually have tea in it, but recreates the experience of chai tea in an amber beer with chai spices and unfermentable sugars. Diane Rogness called Yogi “her baby”, and she should be proud of it. I enjoyed drinking it and have thought about it a lot since Saturday.
- Dallas-Fort Worth is growing. Lakewood Brewing and Revolver Brewing are two names from the Metroplex that seem to have made their Austin debut at the event, alongside DFW stalwarts Deep Ellum and Southern Star. I didn’t get a chance to try Lakewood (sorry!) but Revolver’s Blood & Honey Wheat is a surprisingly complex lawnmower beer with blood orange zest and savory spices. Head brewer Grant Wood invited me to guess which spices he used. I guessed incorrectly, and when I pressed him for the correct answer, he said smiling, “We’ve gotta have some secrets.” Touché.
Finally, the day brought great news to the mead lover in me. I had a chance to speak to Eric Lowe of Meridian Hive Meadery, a new Austin company getting their brewhouse (meadhouse?) assembled currently, and who will hopefully be releasing their first meads in early 2013. There’s a mead gap in Austin, and I welcome them with open arms and a thirsty palate.
Photos of the event are below (including one of your friend and humble narrator in a yellow shirt), courtesy of Roy Moore and Control Images. Thanks to the YMBL and all who made the event what it was.