We’ve Got Pumpkin To Talk About: A Weekend of Spiced and Oktoberfest Beers

We’ve Got Pumpkin To Talk About: A Weekend of Spiced and Oktoberfest Beers

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We’ve entered the craziest time of year for beer events. The sheer number of festivals and release parties is astounding, and they have themes that run the gamut from Oktoberfests to spirits to Halloween. September and October are also the season of the marzen and the pumpkin beer, so it isn’t surprising that this past weekend (13-15th) Walter and I tried no fewer than six marzens or festbiers and seven pumpkin/yam beers. And we haven’t event gotten to the Pumpkin Beer, Cider, and Fall Beer Festival this year (coming up on October 5th in Indy).

People either love pumpkin beers or love to hate them. Just as many articles and comments (and almost all the memes/GIFs) about pumpkin beer are on the negative side as the positive, but it can’t be argued that they sell. Every year there is a fall bump in craft beer sales, and a good portion of that can be attributed to pumpkin beers, according to Bart Watson of the Brewers Association. There is a seasonal increase in searches for pumpkin beer on the internet, and those searches apparently turn into sales.

Pumpkin beers have had their own category at GABF since 2010, so this isn’t a new phenomenon and not all pumpkin beers are the same, or even close to being the same. The ways to make pumpkin beers include using baked pumpkin flesh, puree, cubes, macerated flesh, or even juice. Brewers can add it in the mash tun (to get the most sugars), in the kettle, in the fermenter or even in the barrel, but the key may be the spices included in these beers. Pumpkin itself does more for mouthfeel than it does for flavor, but it does impart a distinct flavor for those that look for it.

It’s pumpkin and Oktoberfest beer time again. image credit: amazon

What most people associate with the pumpkin beer is the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, mace, etc. For many, more spice means more pumpkin-y beer, but I personally like the ones that are more pumpkin and less spice. However, more pumpkin beers are more spice than pumpkin. The reasons are several, the spices we taste in pumpkin pie being the main one, but the 2015 pumpkin harvest has a bit to do with it as well. That year there was a smaller harvest overall, so 2016 pumpkin prices (especially for puree or canned pumpkin) were higher.

Large breweries that made a lot of pumpkin beer cut back on the pumpkin in 2016 and bumped up the spices. They also started adding lactose to pumpkin beers to give that same mouthfeel and remind people of whipped cream on pumpkin pie or pumpkin lattes, and this allowed them to use less pumpkin as well. Therefore, many of the pumpkin beers now are spice-driven, if not out and out spice bombs. We did find a few of these this past weekend, but in the most part, the pumpkin beers we tried, either in bottle or on draft, were balanced and the pumpkin was allowed to shine through.

We started with a two year old bottle of Autumn Maple from The Bruery that had been in our cellar for the majority of that time. It had mellowed considerably, and we then followed that up with a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and a bottle of last year’s Schlafly Pumpkin Stout. All were nice and well rounded. The big pumpkin events we did this weekend were the Bier Brewery Pumpkin Ale Release Party on Friday night and the Urban Vines Stingy Jack Release Party on Saturday night, but we also had some pumpkins at the Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon Festival in Crown Point on Saturday afternoon.

It might appear that pumpkin is all that goes on in the fall beer-wise, but the truth is that Oktoberfest/marzen/festbiers are much more common and popular during this time of year. If you google “pumpkin beer” you get 422,000 hits – a lot to be sure – but the phrase “Oktoberfest beer” gets you 1.3 million hits, and “marzen” brings you 2.43 million. September is prime time for marzens and festbiers, and we had a good time kicking off the season this year at the Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon fest. Five of the six Oktoberfests we had this weekend were at that event, with the sixth being the first chronologically, at the Bier Pumpkin Ale party.

Sarah’s beer board was great, but most of the huge crowd was outside during the Pumpkin Ale release party. image credit: Bier Brewery

The history of the marzen bier goes back to the Germany in the 16th century although they weren’t really called marzens until the 19th century. This was the last beer brewed before the April 23 – September 28 span where brewing wasn’t allowed (too warm to lager). The March/April beers were stored over the summer and then consumed in the early autumn. This coincided with the first and subsequent Oktoberfest celebrations (originally a fest for the marriage of Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese in October of 1810. The timing pretty much led to the crossover naming of marzens as Oktoberfest beers.

Festbiers came along much later, in an effort to make Oktoberfest beers that were lighter and more crushable. It’s basically the only beer now served during the Munich Oktoberfest, while you can see a continuum in the US from dark marzens to light festbiers. The naming conventions (Oktoberfest, with a “K” can really only be used if the beer is made in Munich) have gone mostly by the way side and is in general usage for American beers, you’ll see Oktoberfest, Octoberfest, marzen, and festbier used almost interchangeably, event though they really shouldn’t be, for both style and historical reasons.

Pumpkin Ale Release Party at Bier Brewery. We started our weekend off on Friday evening by stopping at the Bier Brewery party for their multi-medal winning pumpkin ale. As always, they had beers being served outside and inside, with a band outside and lots of tables set up. The beer was great, as always, and many styles were available, not just the pumpkin ale.

What was different this year was the number of people. It is always a well-attended event, but this year the population of the parking lot in front of the brewery probably doubled. Folks moved around just fine, but the space in front of the adjoining businesses was added into the festival space. One reason for the increased attendance was that this was the first year that the event was all ages, with lots of short humans hanging out with their parents. Also, the evening was gorgeous, with any suspected rain not materializing and the temperature not too hot.

Manic Meardery’s tasting room in Crown Point. image credit: nwitimes.com

We did several rounds of the pumpkin ale, but also had time for pours of the Marzen, the Sanitarium (look for the release of the new version in December), and the Barleywine. Many friends were there, and I told most of them about my idea that Bier could do a barrel-aged version of the pumpkin ale. Several breweries do rum barrel aged pumpkin beers, but I think the spice of a rye whiskey barrel could pair very well with this beer. We’ll see if my begging enough can make it happen.

Manic Meadery visit. Our Saturday got started with a drive to Crown Point, but since I forgot about the time change we were there about an hour and a half early for Off Square Brewing’s inaugural Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon Festival. To use our time wisely, we picked up some lunch and then stopped in at Manic Meadery on the north side. We had drunk their goodness just once, at Crown Beer Fest this year, so we thought it was high time to go to the tasting room.

Co-owner Keith Cantwell was in the tasting room when we showed up, and he was kind enough to talk to us at length about the similarities and differences of making meads, ciders, and wines – all of which they do on site. They pay attention to detail in all facets of the operation, from carbonation levels (they have three with their meads and ciders) to serving temperatures (also three versions). They use three keezers (kegerators made from a chest freezers) so they can serve different types of beverages at the proper temperature.

We ordered a flight of two petillant (lightly carbonated) meads and two metheglins (spiced meads) – there’s just so much to learn. They were very flavorful and nowhere too sweet. The early grey mead was very dry and herbal, and the strawberry and basil melomel was so fruity without be cloying. We’ll definitely be back to try more.

mage credit: Walter

Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon Fest. Around 2pm we headed over to the new Bulldog Park in Crown Point for the first Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon Festival put on by Off Square Brewing. All three elements were present in good amounts, as were the attendees, maybe a 1000 by my estimate (caveat – I’m not too good at estimates). The lines for the spirits vendors seemed to be longer than the beer lines, so this beer fest had a lot more going on.

Sizzlebox Food Truck took home the trophy for best bacon-inspired dishes (I hear tell there was some bourbon in there as well), but I think Walter and I might be limiting ourselves because we spent all our time sampling beers and talking to brewers – an occupational hazard, I guess. The covered area of the park was used to house almost all the booths and trucks, but there was still more than enough room for the attendees with the 25 breweries, nearly double digit distilleries and more than half a dozen food vendors.

If you wanted to get some sun, there was ample room on the way down to the stage where the bands were playing, but once again – we spent our time on beer. There were so many choices, and we did end up doing a bunch of festbiers and marzens and several pumpkin beers. One of the best of the day was the Ignis Fatuus pumpkin from Crown Brewing; it would be nice to see them down in Indy for the Pumpkin, Cider, and Fall Beer Festival.

It was quite a crowd at Beer, Bacon, and Bourbon Festival. image credit: Off Square Brewing

The marzen that was most memorable was the Bladefest from the NIBS homebrew club, but those from Upland, Evil Horse, and the Munsterfest from FFF were nice too. Overall, My Ghetto IPA from The Devil’s Trumpet was Walter’s favorite – she’s consistent if she’s anything, while I was really partial to the Blackberry Marshmallow from Viking Artisan Ales and the Raspberry, Marshmallow, and Coconut Same Old Jam from Misbeehavin’ Meads. I was in a marshmallow mood.

The event was well organized and we foresee a good future for it. It seemed to bring in a new audience, which is so important to the continued growth of craft beer. Congratulations to Dave, Rod, Phil, Tae, Barb, and the entire Off Square crew and volunteers. I think this will be a successful festival for years to come.

Stingy Jack Release at Urban Vines. Our last stop of the day was Urban Vines Winery & Brewery in Westfield for their Stingy Jack Pumpkin Ale release party. We were surprised by the number of cars as we drove into the parking lot, but it made sense when we saw how many families were there with the parents doing a wine tasting and the kids climbing on the playground equipment.

The indoor, outdoor, and three season sections of Urban Vines were all packed, with a nice duo playing music, and so….many… kids. It must be something about pumpkin beer release events. The Stingy Jack this year is a great lactose pumpkin beer, with a smoothness from both the milk sugar and the pumpkin. It is nicely dry; however, they added a sugar and spice rim on the cup that made it too sweet for me. They really should ask people if they want the sugared rim.

Urban Vines was Pumpkin beer and cotton candy wine central on Saturday. image credit: Walter

I saw several people drinking the pumpkin beer, but many more were carrying around glasses and bottles of wine, including the cotton candy wine that was sold out in a single weekend, but has come back now in a bigger batch. In all, Urban Vines is a great venue for an evening of craft beverages and good music; their summer concert series has been very successful and they have no fewer than 19 events in the works before the Dead Man’s Fest on October 5th.

Conclusion. This weekend seemed to be opening day for the fall beer season, and the pumpkins and marzens didn’t disappoint. I know that by the end of October I’ll be ready to move on to more porters and stouts, but for now let’s have all the Oktoberfest beer and festivals you can throw at us. Starting with Lagers in Lawrence on the 21st and then moving through the Pumpkin Beer Fest, the Oktoberfests that so many breweries hold (like Moontown’s 2nd Oktoberfest on the 28th), and then to the costumed events like the 3rd Annual Hendricks County Hoppy Halloween. This is a special time of year for craft beer. Enjoy the styles of the times for what they are and try not to hate on the pumpkin beers. Remember, it’s a beer, not a life choice.

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