All Hail the Mighty Pumpkin

Pumpkin Alewerks (1)By Jeff Maisey

A headless horseman – actually riding on the back of a ferocious bear – gallops through the forested mountains of Nelson County with bow and arrow on hand in search of prey. The rider isn’t seeking to terrorize the local population or even to catch a beast to feast upon. The hunter is in hot pursuit of the craft beer industry’s most popular seasonal brew – pumpkin beer.

This imagery is captured on the label of Devils Backbone Brewing Company’s new Pumpkin Hunter, an ale brewed with pumpkin and spices (cinnamon, ginger, Allspice and nutmeg).

Brewmaster Jason Oliver describes the beer as a “liquid pumpkin pie.” Oliver debuted the beer on tap at the DB’s brewpub known as the Basecamp.  Last year it was bottled for the first time under the label Ichabod Crandall, named for founder/owner Steve Crandall, and sold out before the first week of September.  Since another brewery already used the name Ichabod for its seasonal, Devils Backbone changed its brand to Pumpkin Hunter, which is actually more appropriate given Crandall’s passion for the great outdoors, hunting and fishing included.

Pumpkin Hunter will be available in kegs as well as bottled 6-packs. It is part of DB’s Trail Blazers series, six limited edition styles with a bold twist.

Nationwide, pumpkin beers are the top selling seasonal craft beer sold in bottles.  Like any holiday or season specific product, retailers and distributors demand pumpkin beer be available on the shelves in early August – well ahead of the official beginning of fall and Halloween. Go to any Total Wine & More location and you’ll simply be amazed at the enormous displays of pumpkin beers produced by everyone from New Belgium (Pumpkick) and Southern Tier (Pumking) to Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale and Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale.

Virginia breweries are also keen on delivering this treat to consumers in numerous variations.  Four years ago, Crozet-based Starr Hill Brewing Company debuted its Boxcar Pumpkin Porter to rave reviews and booming sales. The brewery also said it made a smashing impact on another level – the pumpkin market.

“The first time we did it we made the commodities price jump a dollar in the middle of summer because pumpkins weren’t available,” said Starr Hill’s Mike Andres. “They said, ‘Do you really want eight tons of pumpkins?’ and I think Mark (Thompson) said something funny like, ‘Dude, you know what, we’ll get ten tons of pumpkins.’”

Starr Hill’s seasonal beers, including Grateful Pale Ale and Soul Shine – have been massive high notes for the company.  As a “branding thing,” an extra “r” was been added last year to the beer’s name. From here on out we’ll refer to it as Boxcarr.  Boxcarr is a delicious, full-of-flavor English brown, medium bodied porter with a nice nutmeg and cinnamon finish.  Like most Starr Hill products, Boxcarr has a musical reference. Think Johnny Cash, lyrics to the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” the Grateful Dead – even Boxcar Willie. Secondly, there is a freight train line running next to Starr Hill’s brewery.

Pumpkin beers seem to appeal to a wide array of consumers.  “The pumpkin category will crossover any non-beer drinker because of the fanaticism of people just wanting to try pumpkin beers,” Andres explained. “Maybe it is the sweetness of it. I’ve seen everyone – women and men – just crazy about the new pumpkin beer. You’ll see way more craft breweries in Virginia start doing more pumpkin beers.”

One of those other made-in-Virginia beers is the Pumpkin Porter brewed by Capitol City Brewing Company in Arlington. Since Cap City is strictly a brewpub, it doesn’t feel the pressure to offer its pumpkin brew in late summer. In fact, the beer will appear on tap the weekend of October 3. That’ll give those pumpkin enthusiasts a late season opportunity to enjoy what is likely to be a scarce beer.

Capitol City brewmaster Kristi Griner is a big fan of the style.  “I really like the way the chocolate malts compliment the spices but also the flavor of the gourds themselves,” said Griner. “We use a blend of pumpkin puree and butternut squash. Butternut squash is ripe in September and gives you a definitive gourd taste, and not just loaded with spice. I don’t like beers that are all spice with no actual vegetable in them. We add brown sugar, ginger, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and all spice. It’s quite lovely and fragrant.”

Pumpkin beers are sure to be available August through mid-September at a local craft brewery near you. Some of the other excellent Virginia-brewed variations include Williamsburg Alewerks Pumpkin Ale (bottles and draft), St. George Brewing Company’s Pumpkinfest (Oktoberfest style beer with pumpkin and spices), O’Connor Brewing Company’s Punkelweisse (traditional German style dark wheat beer with pumpkin and fall spices), Strangeways’ Gourd of Thunder and Hardwood Park Craft Brewery’s Rum Pumpkin.