by James Cain
As we were planning our initial beer lineup for the October 2012 opening of Vault Brewing Company, we knew we needed to have a pumpkin beer. Pumpkin beers were all the rage for sure, but we needed to put our spin on it and create something we, as well as our target market, would enjoy. In addition, we were about to create the world’s first brewery in a bank so we had no intentions of “going with the flow” so to speak. Our brewmaster, Mark Thomas, designed a beer equivalent to “sweet potato pie in a glass,” complete with the cascading nitrogenated head as the whip cream topping. We risked being left-of-center for the style, but as celebrity chef Alton Brown advises, “don’t think of it as sweet potato pie, think of it as the best pumpkin pie you ever had.” It turned out to be one of the best decisions we made as a brewery and our Sweet Potato Ale is one of our most anticipated and popular styles today.
Pumpkin/Yam/Spice beers have been around for centuries. Early American colonists first used these ingredients out of necessity, as malted barley was a lot harder to come by and fermentable vegetables and fruits could be grown locally. Today, the style of beer has made a complete one-eighty from where it began and is a top selling beer variety for many breweries. Beer stores, craft beer bars and brewpubs would be missing out on some serious dollars by not taking advantage of the trend that has swept the nation over the past decade and shows no sign of slowing down.
Like our Sweet Potato Ale, many breweries are experimenting with variations on the style. There are imperial pumpkin beers (Southern Tier’s Pumking), wild pumpkin beers (Pumpkin Lambicus), pumpkin stouts (Dark O’ The Moon), pumpkin porters (one by Redhook), spiced beers (with no actual pumpkin), chocolate pumpkin beers (Midnight Sun’s TREAT), even pumpkin IPAs (Southern Tier’s brew). You can add pumpkin (or sweet potato) to the mash, the kettle, or the fermenter. You can use spices and adjuncts like vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice, brown sugar, molasses, and even graham cracker at various ratios and at various stages in the process to achieve desired flavor combinations. There is no limit to the creativity of craft brewers and the “try-anything” attitude of the craft beer community. It’s up to the brewer to use these seasonally appropriate ingredients as tools for their recipe development and the discernment of the beer drinkers to conclude what works for them and what doesn’t.
For us at Vault, it comes down to simplicity and balance. We start with NC grown sweet potatoes and roast them in our wood-fired oven to cook the insides and caramelize the juices. We peel off the bitter skins, puree the softened meat, and add the now hardened candied juice that caramelized on the baking pan into the mixture. The puree goes straight into the mash that consists of a blend of base and specialty malts and we extract the sugary liquid (called “wort”). During the boiling stage, we add vanilla beans, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hops with a light hand and then off to the fermenter it goes where we add a little light molasses before the yeast gets to work transforming the sugary liquid mass into a refined, balanced, and easy drinking beer. The end result is not one you would label a “dessert beer” and is quite different from other beers in the pumpkin style. We serve our Sweet Potato Ale on nitro to give it a creamy head, velvety mouthfeel, and a slight sweetness to round out the flavors and make it approachable and sessionable.
These seasonal beers are arguably the most varied and subjectively reviewed styles in the wide spectrum of beer with flavors ranging from mild to prominent and a sweetness from dry to dessert-like. In the end it comes down to the personal preference of the drinker and the creativity of the brewer. There’s a lot of great beer out there and this seasonal style is one that’s always worth exploring.