Go for the gourd

Dining and DrinkingLifestyle and LeisureCompanies and CorporationsEaston (Northampton, Pennsylvania)

Jed Weeks follows the rhythms of the beer calendar. The 24-year-old who lives in Mount Vernon knows that as the seasons change, so do the offerings of craft brewers.

These days brewers are rolling out their Oktoberfest beers, traditionally Marzen lagers, slightly sweet and nutty. Its annual autumnal release has been the inspiration of Oktoberfest celebrations from Germany, which started reveling in Munich on Saturday, to the Oct. 10 gathering of Maryland brewers at the Timonium Fairgrounds.

Weeks has sampled the Oktoberfests, but the seasonal beer he favors is a brown ale made with a bright orange fall fruit, a pumpkin.

"Every fall I get some Punkin' Ale," Weeks said, referring to the fall beer made by Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Del.

This autumn, Weeks has plenty of company. While the ranks of Oktoberfest drinkers are legion - a panel of tasters picked favorites from this year's 26 domestic and German Oktoberfests -- pumpkin beers, the other fall seasonals, are on the rise.

"Pumpkin beers are wildly popular," said Paul Cain, brewer at Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, N.Y. The brewery's Pumking was declared the best of this year's crop of pumpkin beers by the Web site BeerAdvocate, and it won the recent blind tasting of nine pumpkin beers by a panel of Baltimore beer aficionados.

Statistics show an increasing number of beer drinkers are going for the gourd. Southern Tier almost tripled its output of Pumking from 400 barrels in 2008 to 1,100 barrels this year. At Dogfish Head, sales of its Punkin' Ale increased 37 percent from 2008 to 2009.

The number of pumpkin beers entered in competition at the Great American Beer Festival, craft beer's World Series, has climbed steadily, from 7 in 2006 to 24 last year. The number of pumpkin beers competing in this year's festival, being held this week in Denver, was expected to top last year's count.

Pumpkin beers, however, are not embraced by all beer drinkers. Traditionalists object to any beer made with more than the four classic ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Others recoil at the notion of putting pumpkin pie spices - nutmeg and cinnamon - in beer. Still others are uneasy cozying up to any beer made with fruit.

Ironically, Cain, who brews the popular Pumking, is not wild about the flavor of pumpkins.

"I don't like pumpkin pie," he said in a telephone interview from the brewery. Cain said he limits his intake of Pumking to one bottle at Thanksgiving, which he enjoys with a slice of apple, not pumpkin, pie.

"But I do love brewing it," Cain said of Pumking, "because it pays the bills."

"Pumpkin beer is more of a novelty," said Matt Brophy, senior vice president of brewing at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, an operation that this year turned out a small run of Pumpkin Patch under its Wild Goose label. Pumpkin Patch was ranked as one of the Top 10 American pumpkin beers by the Web site Beer Info. This year's production of Pumpkin Patch was so small that the beer did not make it into the Baltimore market, he said.

For Brophy, one pumpkin beer is enough. "I am not going to sit down at a ball game and drink two or three," he said.

Hugh Sisson, who has been brewing craft beers in Baltimore for more than 20 years, used to say his Clipper City Brewing Company would never make a pumpkin beer. Yet this fall his brewery produced The Great Pumpkin, an Imperial Pumpkin Ale.

"It is not my favorite style of beer," Sisson said. "But my brewers made me do it. And I am glad they did."

According to Dogfish's Sam Calagione, a key to success is subtlety. Dogfish Punkin' Ale, which was rated the top pumpkin brew in the country by Beer Info and which finished second in this year's Baltimore tasting, is known for its hint of spices.

"You have to have a fine touch," Calagione said. Both the pumpkin and the spices, he said, "have to be components, without being overwhelming."

It also doesn't hurt to brew Punkin' Ale in Delaware, where pumpkins are a big deal. The annual Punkin' Chunkin' contest, in which competing teams build machines that sling pumpkins great distances, is one of Delaware's signature cultural events.

"It is the rednecks vs. the geeks," Calagione said, who regularly attends the pumpkin-hurling competition held in Nassau, Del.," adding, "I always root for the rednecks."

Pumpkins are also plentiful in New York state, where Cain makes his Pumking brews for others to enjoy. Since the pumpkin harvest occurs too late in year for brewers to use gourds fresh from the fields, most use canned product, he said.

Cain posited a theory on why pumpkin beers are in vogue. Namely, they don't fool you.

"Craft beers can be complicated," he said, noting that it can be difficult to decipher the type of hops or yeast used in an exotic brew. "With pumpkin beers, it is easy to identify what you are tasting. It says cinnamon and pumpkin spices on the label, and that is what you taste."

Another appeal of pumpkin beers is that they stir the seasonal soul. Fans of the beers, commenting in blogs and in telephone interviews, sometimes used lyrical language to describe the effect the beer had on them.

"There's something about it that makes the immediate connection to the earth so much more real with pumpkin beers," Jim Pavlik, a home brewer and blogger from Indianapolis, wrote in a comment at baltimoresun.com/kasperontap, The Baltimore Sun's beer blog. "I for one love the creaminess the pumpkin imparts. And of course the aroma of well-made pumpkin ale is always in perfect sync with the season."

Then there is Weeks, who grew up in Baltimore County, graduated from the University of Delaware and moved to Mount Vernon to work in downtown Baltimore. He writes of his Punkin' Ale much like Marcel Proust wrote of his Madeleine.

Sipping the beer "on a chilly fall day reminds me of some of the things I've lost in moving to the city - like being able to sit on the roof of my porch and look out at the fields and changing leaves over the Monkton hills," Weeks wrote in an e-mail.

"It's a seasonal beer that makes me reminisce. I don't know why it does, but I like it because of that."

Tasting results Here are the favored fall beers picked in a blind tasting of 35 seasonal beers by a panel of tasters.

Domestic Oktoberfests • Lancaster Oktoberfest, Lancaster Brewing Co., Lancaster Pa. $9.29 a six-pack. 4.8 percent ABV. Terrific copper color, strong caramel malt and nut flavors, slight aftertaste.

•Mendocino Autumn Lager, Mendocino Brewing Co., Ukiah, Calif. $7.45 a six-pack. 6.1 percent ABV. Excellent copper color, terrific head, smooth and malty.

•Weyerbacher AutumnFest, Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Easton, Pa. $10.50 a six-pack. 5.4 percent ABV. A drier take on traditional Oktoberfest with remarkable smoothness.

•Clipper City MarzHon, Clipper City Brewing, Baltimore. $8.49 a six-pack. 4.5 percent ABV. Crisp and clean, a classic Marzen with a shy nuttiness.

•Clipper City Prosit, Clipper City Brewing, Baltimore. $6 for a 750 ml bottle. 9 percent ABV. A full-bodied Imperial Marzen with flavors of toffee, caramel malt and slight fruitiness.

German Oktoberfests •Ayinger Oktober Fest Marzen, Aying, Germany. $2.99 for a 750 ml bottle. 5.4 percent ABV. Golden, a crisp, smooth balanced brew with pleasing nutty flavor.

•Erdinger Oktoberfest Weizen. Erding, Germany. $10 a six-pack. 5.6 percent ABV. Straw-colored beer with remarkable aggressive head. More citrus flavors than malt.

•Weihenstephaner Festbier, Freising, Germany. $10 a six-pack. 5.8 percent ABV. Straw-colored, slight nuttiness with a slight bite. Lighter and sharper than most fest beers.

Pumpkin beers •Pumking Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, N.Y. $7 for a 750 ml bottle. 9 percent ABV. Pumpkin pie aroma, pumpkin pie spices mix with malt in this sweet seasonal.

•Punkin' Ale, Dogfish Head Brewing Company, Milton, Del. $8.49 a four-pack. 7 percent ABV. A beautiful brown ale with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, but the spice is much quieter than in most pumpkin brews.

•Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Easton, Pa. $10.99 a four-pack. 8 percent ABV. Big pumpkin pie spice aromas - cinnamon, nutmeg - and the taste mirrors the aroma.

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