Joe Sixpack: Time to harvest pumpkin beers

Dick Cantwell: "Coming up with the names is half of the fun."
Dick Cantwell: "Coming up with the names is half of the fun."
Posted: August 25, 2011

GOURD HELP US, it's pumpkin-beer season again.

That means brewers aren't just raiding the spice cabinet, they're reaching for their Roget's Thesaurus, too. No other beer style inspires more puns than the Great Pumpkin.

Pumking, River Horse Hipp-O-Lantern, JackAle Lantern, Gourd of the Rings, Mashing Pumpkin, Pumpkin Up the Volume - well, you get the idea.

"Coming up with the names is half of the fun," said Dick Cantwell, co-owner and brew master of Seattle's Elysian Brewing.

He should know: No one in America makes more varieties of pumpkin beer than Cantwell.

His most popular, Elysian Night Owl, is distributed throughout the Northwest and Mid-Atlantic on draft and in 22-ounce bombers. It's made with more than 7 pounds per barrel, with chopped-up and pureed pumpkin added during the mash, boil and fermentation, along with roasted pumpkin seeds, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice.

That would be enough for any other brewery. But this year, Cantwell will make about a dozen other types in preparation for his brewery's annual Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, the nation's largest devoted to what is essentially a worthless orange squash.

He brews pumpkin stout, pumpkin pilsner, pumpkin hefeweizen and even a pumpkin malt liquor. He's begun collaborating with some of the nation's top brewers to make even more imaginative styles.

And next month, during the Great American Beer Festival, he's throwing down the gauntlet by pouring 10 pumpkins at Denver's celebrated Falling Rock Taphouse. With the saloon serving as the central meeting place during the world's most prestigious beer-judging event, Cantwell's boldness is the beer-making equivalent of playing the banjo during a Beethoven concert.

Indeed, many brewers and sober-minded beer geeks sniff that pumpkin ale is a gimmick whose spicy flavor is dependent not on traditional ingredients, but on whatever jars of McCormick spices are handy. So, it's reasonable to wonder: How did a brewer known as one of the industry's deep thinkers get hooked into pumpkins?

Cantwell acknowledged that, until recently, he didn't think much of pumpkin beer, either. It wasn't until he started brewing a variety of styles that he realized using the fruit was a challenge that required some serious planning.

For one thing, pumpkin contains a lot of water, so it's difficult to reach the proper gravity (or sugar content) in the beer's original wort. Secondly, it's like brewing with mashed potatoes: The mash can be thick, and it can be extremely difficult to separate the liquid from the solids.

Then there's that green, slippery, squashlike mouth feel.

"You want sort of a swampy taste, but you've got to make a good beer around it, so it tastes interesting," Cantwell said. "Some brewers just throw diced pumpkin into a finished beer, and all they do is ruin perfectly good beer. You have to take it seriously, not something you're ashamed of.

"I still don't take it super seriously - it's a lark. But in the end, we're just making beer. It's not life and death."

Maybe not, but each year beer lovers anticipate the arrival of their favorites like Linus in the pumpkin patch.

At Elysian's festival, that moment comes when they tap the Great Pumpkin, a giant, 200-pounder that contains still-fermenting beer. This year, the festival will stretch over two days, Oct. 8-9, and will feature pumpkin ales from the likes of Russian River, Allagash, Norway's Nøgne Ø, Rogue, Anderson Valley and the Philadelphia area's Iron Hill and Stewart's brewpubs.

Today, Cantwell laughs at how the phenomenon has grown and said, "It's just one of those things that got away from us. . . . We were joking the other night that if this trend keeps up, we'll need another brewery just to brew pumpkin beer."


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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