The allure of (local) seasonal beers
You know how it seems like the holiday shopping season starts earlier with each passing year?
It turns out that there’s something similar happening in the beer industry. With the popularity spike craft beer has experienced in the last decade, no style of seasonal beer is more highly anticipated or feverishly demanded than the autumn crop of pumpkin-flavored beers. Some American macrobrewers began releasing their pumpkin beers to the market as early as July.
“It’s crazy,” says Scott Smith, whose Larimer-based East End Brewing Company waited until earlier this month to roll out a small batch of Nunkin Ale, its pumpkin-flavored seasonal. “By the time we come out with it in October, people are already sick of pumpkin beer. We joked that we at least had to wait until the nunkins were in season.”
Like many brewers, Smith balks at the notion that pumpkin beers must contain actual pumpkin. He relies mainly on pumpkin spice, nutmeg and other flavors.
“No pumpkins were harmed in the brewing of this beer,” he says. “Hats off to all these guys who are going through extra measures to get pumpkin into their beers. They’re putting them into the mash, they’re putting them in the kettle, they’re pureeing them, they’re taking them to local pizza shops and roasting them in the pizza ovens. I’ve even heard of people serving the beer out of an actual pumpkin, which I think is wonderful, but you can’t make a beer taste like squash without taking the beer flavor away.”
While East End produces enough Nunkin to meet the demand for a pumpkin beer, its real seasonal pride is its Big Hop Harvest — an autumnal take on its popular Big Hop IPA. Most beers — Big Hop included — are made with dried hops. Harvest uses fresh hops in a process called wet-hopping. Every year, Smith drives six hours to the Finger Lakes region of New York to get freshly picked hops from his farmer. As soon as he’s loaded his truck, he starts back to Pittsburgh.
“We have to the hold the tanks open and wait for the call from the farmer. They call and say they’re going to start picking and that’s when we start driving,” says Smith, who brought back 1,200 pounds of fresh hops to brew 180 barrels of beer.
“Big Hop Harvest is the true
seasonal beer. The others are seasonal beers because we choose them to be seasonal. We wait for the hops to come in and Mother Nature determines when that beer is ready.”
In addition to Nunking and Big Hop Harvest, East End produced a limited run of an altbier — a German-style pale ale — called Mocktoberfest. It’s not made in the traditional German Oktoberfest style, but its malt-forward flavor profile makes it very similar. As October turns into November, East End will roll out a fall cider.
“Between Nunkin and Mocktoberfest, there’s sarcasm on tap here,” Smith says.
While many breweries mock the pumpkin craze, Church Brew Works embraces it with outstretched arms. The Lawrenceville brew pub cooked up a robust stout using 150 pounds of grilled local pumpkins and tapped it last week, serving Pumpkin Stout from a hollowed-out pumpkin.
On the other end of Lawrenceville, Steve Sloan, who with his wife, Dyana, opened Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville four months ago, has two fall offerings on tap with more to come.
Roundabout’s take on Oktoberfest, made with Munich and Vienna malts, is available at the brewery, and Sloan says he’ll soon be releasing a La Fin du Monde-style golden ale. Made with the same yeast as the popular Belgian, it’ll feature flavors of coriander, citrus and a good amount of local honey he purchased from Wild Purveyors.
Like Smith, Steve says he doesn’t really understand the appeal of pumpkin-flavored beers. It was at Dyana’s urging that he concocted a batch of what he calls Jacked Up O’ Lantern Stout, using coffee from local roasters La Prima Espresso.
“It’s not your typical pumpkin beer,” Sloan says. “It’s a pretty robust coffee stout with just a little pumpkin pie spice added to it.”
Almost exactly 10 blocks west of Roundabout, Arsenal Cider House took its own run at the pumpkin craze, releasing a hard cider made with pumpkin puree and a small amount of pumpkin spice. But don’t bother asking for it at the counter.
“It’s gone. We blew through 24 kegs in a week,” says Arsenal Manager Michelle Larkin.
Though they have no plans to make more pumpkin cider this year, Arsenal will release a sweet, non-carbonated mead made from orange blossom honey within the next week. In November, they’ll roll out a pair of semi-sweet cranberry and blackberry wines which Larkin says will go well with any Thanksgiving meal.
Because apple crops peak during autumn, the best fall cider may still be yet to come. A batch of cider made from Honeycrisps — the Rolls-Royce of apples — is barrel aging in Arsenal’s cellar right now. Larkin says it should be ready to tap in two to three months.
In North Versailles, the guys at Full Pint brewery take turns experimenting with different styles and techniques. They call their experimental series Nerd’s Reserve, and this fall’s offering is brainchild of brewer and co-founder Barrett Goddard. It’s called Yeast Common Denominator, and it’s a cross between an altbier and a weizen — a German-style wheat beer.
“It’ll be on the hoppier side of any wheat beer that anybody’s had,” says Full Pint’s Jake Kristophel. “The hops don’t come through so much. You get them right on the back end, but they’re not overpowering. We ferment our weizen at around 57 degrees, so we’re getting a lot of banana and bubblegum characteristics out of them. There’s also chocolate malt in it, so it has those nice toffee and chocolate flavors.”
Full Pint’s major fall seasonal also happens to be one of its most popular brews, but it’s not a pumpkin Festivus Ale, a brown session ale made with vanilla and a strong, nutmeg-like brewing spice called mace, is one of the brewery’s biggest sellers.
“We don’t make it too malty,” Kristophel says. “It’s on the drier side of a malty beer.”
Though Festivus —a parody holiday which originated in a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld” — isn’t celebrated until December 23rd, the brewery holds a big Festivus party complete with a pole, the feats of strength and the airing of grievances when it releases the ale the first week of November.
As for Full Pint’s all-important pumpkin offering?
“We did one last year, but chose not to do one this season,” Kristophel says. “There’s a huge demand for it and we talked about doing a really small batch of it just to have on draft at the brewery, but it’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth.”
As Full Pint decided to jump off the pumpkin bandwagon, the Penn Brewery — the longtime brewer of exclusively German styles — decided to try its hand. This year, it produced Pumpkin Roll Ale — a beer made to invoke flavors of the seasonal cake rolled into a log swirled with cream cheese icing. Much like its Nut Roll Ale, a popular winter selection, Penn brews this sweet ale with lactose, giving it an especially creamy finish.
Of course, sweet and spiced beers aren’t everyone’s thing.
“I became a brewer because I liked the taste of beer,” says Nick Rosich, one of Penn’s brewers. “If I liked really sweet, spicy things, I’d have been a baker."
If like Rosich, sweeter beers aren’t your thing, Penn plans to keep its award-winning, malty Oktoberfest around for another few weeks, even though the annual German beer festival ended in September.
“As far as the seasonal beers go, it’s our best seller,” he says.
Matt Gouwens might be a newcomer to the Pittsburgh brewing scene, but he’s very much in the same boat. Gouwens, whose Hop Farm Brewery opened last month in Lawrenceville, has a steady roster of three beers on tap, but decided that rather than brew an entirely new beer for fall, he’d craft a fall version of his saison — a fruity, Belgian-style pale ale.
“For the fall, I brought up the alcohol in the saison, and brought up the color a little bit,” Gouwens says, adding that he did it with 42 pounds of sweet cherries and 84 pounds of black currants. “It’s basically the same recipe but jacked up a little bit.”
On top of the strong and fruity fall saison, Gouwens released a full-bodied coffee porter last week, and will roll out an even darker version of the saison in November.
As a recent startup, Gouwens says he didn’t consider doing a pumpkin beer during his first fall season, but he’s not averse to it.
“We’ll probably get into it, but I really want to make sure I nail it."
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen