By Contributing Columnist Donavan Hall
Over the last week or so, the weather on Long Island turned cool. A few of the trees in my yard took this as a signal to start dropping their leaves -- my yard is littered with auburn, brown, garnet and orange. The signs of Fall are everywhere.
Last weekend, I took my family to the Garlic Festival (see Denise's article on Growers and Grocers), the second in what might prove to be an annual event. In addition to last weekend being a celebration of garlic (I was seriously tempted to brew a garlic beer -- maybe next year), that same weekend was the beginning of pumpkin season.
On Long Island "pumpkin season" means climbing into your car and creating an artificial traffic jam on Route 48 (the artery that feeds Long Island Farm and Wine Country). Every farmstand along Route 48 has an expansive pumpkin patch and the road is dotted with sign urging people to "pick your own." It's also the time of year when Long Island's brewpubs unleash their pumpkin ales on a thirsty public.
Both the Brickhouse and John Harvard's have their pumpkin ales on tap right now. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of pumpkin ale in general. I've only tasted one pumpkin ale I really liked and that was a craftbrew (homebrew) made by my friend Wayne Wambles when we were both living in Tallahassee. My big complaint about the Brickhouse pumpkin is that it's emphasis is on the pumpkin spice, not the pumpkin flavor. Also, a pumpkin ale should have a thick mouthfeel. It should not be a pumpkin spice flavored pale ale.
Brewers, when you make a pumpkin ale, think about making something as thick as a stout, but something that's a bright orange instead. A good pumpkin ale would be ideal served in the cask. It should taste of pumpkins, not flowers.
I don't think any Long Island brewer is likely to listen to me since few people are inclined to mess with success -- and pumpkin ale is a success. At John Harvard's I talked with headbrewer David Deturris about his pumpkin ale. "It outsells by volume all other beers we brew here. Even the beers we brew all year. I'll brew more pumpkin ale from September to December than I brew of the John Harvard's Pale ale in twelve months," he told me. I asked him if he thought that pumpkin ale's success was due to the "gimmick factor." Pumpkin ale (at John Harvard's and the Brickhouse) are served with a cinnamon sugar rim (think about the salt rim on a margarita and you know what I'm talking about). So that first taste of pumpkin ale delivers a mouthful of cinnamon and sugar which masks the flavor of the beer and moderates the spicy/floral nature of most pumpkin ales. Also, the aroma is dominated by that sugary cinnamon layer on the rim. My guess is that you could put cinnamon sugar on the rim of a Pabst Blue Ribbon and it would taste like pumpkin ale.
David agreed. People like the cinnamon sugar gimmick.
David also gave me a taste of the "raw" pumpkin ale before it is spiced. It's a standard amber ale with nothing assertive in the brew at all. Everything happens in the serving tank. That's where the spices are added. It's a mix of the standard spices your mother tosses into her pumpkin pie: brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. The only thing missing from these beers is actual pumpkin. A few breweries advertise that they add pumpkin to the mash, but it's typically a homeopathic dose of pumpkin filling just so they can say there is real pumpkin in the brew.
Another reason these beers are so successful is that they are only around for (at most) three months. It's a novelty -- a marker of the season. When you notice the air getting a little nippy and the leaves starting to fall and pumpkin patches opening, it's hard to resist ordering a pumpkin ale. Enjoy!