It’s the Great Pumpkin!

Cantwellian Dystopia - Pumpkin beer brand imageOn its own, pumpkin tastes kind of bitter and astringent.  That’s why it’s most often seasoned with something else, such as the holy pentad of pumpkin pie spice.  It can also be good when paired with some of the seasonings of cuisines that appreciate pumpkin, such as Indian, or Mexican.  But bitter and astringent is pretty much the way I felt when walking away from my previous brewery in Seattle and the pumpkin beer-related ridiculousness we cultivated there.  The less said about that the better (20 different pumpkin beers of our own, with an additional 80 or so from other breweries for an annual pumpkinfest), and in fact I vowed that after ten years of seasonal obsession with the gourd I’d never brew pumpkin beer again.  My friend and former co-worker Steve at Cloudburst Brewing in Seattle, in fact, made a pumpkin beer two years ago called Cantwellian Dystopia. A picture of its branding image is enclosed.  He even gave me a T-shirt.  I’m a little shamefaced to report that it’s only one of three pumpkin beer-related T-shirts on which I’ve appeared over the years.

Fast forward five years later, however, and I was ready to brew pumpkin beer again.  The setup at the Haight Street pub is perfect for it—a modest fourteen kegs of beer per batch, just the right amount to keep it around the two Magnolia locations for most of a month.  With that batch size you can get a little silly and not have things hanging on your hands for too much time.  Still, you can’t get too esoteric.  Anyone who remembers Fennel Face, the Belgian-style Dubbel flavored with fennel juice we made a couple of Novembers ago for BRU-SFO knows what I’m talking about.

A word or two about pumpkin pie spice and its limits.  Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice.  This time of year it’s like saying the rosary, and as we all know, it’s everywhere.  It’s too many places, in too many things, and that includes pumpkin beer.  Back when I used to curate the beer for my former brewery’s festival, I would turn away many a beer spiced with the Big Five.  People would call me or email me, saying they wanted to send beer to the fest, and I’d always ask them what they had in mind.  A sour pumpkin beer? Great.  A barrel-aged strong pumpkin beer? Great. A pumpkin beer made with nettles, or saffron, or gin botanicals?  Fabulous.  But the last thing I wanted—and I would use those words—was 75 beers spiced like pumpkin pie.

I don’t like pumpkin pie, to be perfectly honest.  I don’t even really like pumpkin in any application. But pumpkin beer has its place in colonial brewing history, and more to the point, its season extends beyond the two or three weeks people are at all interested in Oktoberfest beers.  That’s the primary reason I originally stopped making the latter and concentrated on the former.  In addition, pumpkin beer offers an opportunity, as I’ve also often said, to show how as a brewer you can be both serious and ridiculous—serious because you have to come up with a clever and delicious concept riffing on some aspect of brewing tradition and expectation, and ridiculous because it’s pumpkin beer.  It’s like being asked to make a fresco using crayons.  Along those lines, in fact, I once made a version of the classic Burton Union system of fermentation using conjoined casks by arraying a line of goosenecked gourds filled with actively fermenting beer, flurping yeast into a trough made out of Delicata Squash.  Ridiculous, for sure.  I called it my Tim Burton Union.

Followers of the Gourd will also recall the pumpkin-conditioned beers I used to offer at our fest.  Year over year the pumpkins got bigger and bigger, but the process was the same: cut the top off and scoop out the guts, char the inside with a torch to synthesize the interior of a Bourbon barrel and mitigate (somewhat) the swampy taste of raw pumpkin, fill with beer and prime with unfermented wort, seal it all up with beeswax and broach, when the time is right, by hammering a tap into the side of the pumpkin and pouring it until it’s gone.  Here at Magnolia we did a couple of those at our pumpkin release parties a couple of weeks back.

Dick Cantwell at Magnolia Brewing’s Pumpkin Palooza on September 18th.

So what did we make this year?  First up was a Belgian Farmhouse-style Table Beer called Brother Gourdo, spiced with coriander and orange peel.  Next was a kettle-soured pumpkin-peach ale.  This one we called Insult to Injury, referencing the Super Bowl ad run by my former brewery’s overlords the week after the acquisition, making direct mock, on national TV, of a beer we had once made. “Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale,” the voice-over intoned, as a ludicrously moustachioed hipster twirled a fussily stemmed glass beneath his over-attuned nose.  Then there was Trendy Trainwreck, a pastiche of concepts combining hazy IPA, Blood Orange and pumpkin beer, all in one sticky glass.  We haven’t even actually brewed the final entry yet, as we’ve been waiting for this year’s sugar pumpkins to be harvested.  It’s one from the Magnolia archive, a dark, spiced (yes, those five) pumpkin ale called Barking Pumpkin, after Frank Zappa’s record label.  In fact I brewed a beer with the same name during my previous incarnation as a brewer of pumpkin beers.  And we’re planning to send a couple of kegs of Insult and Trainwreck out to the pumpkin fest which these days carries the torch of ridiculous authenticity, run by my friend Will at Cambridge Brewing Company, held in the town in which, as it happened, I brewed my first batches of homebrew.  All four beers will be on at the pub as long as they last.  Come check them out, if you’re into that kind of thing.