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Maryland brewers discuss pumpkin-spice beer phenomenon

Maryland brewers discuss what makes their pumpkin-spice beer stand out.

Each year, the list of products infused with pumpkin-spice flavor grows. Coffee and ice cream offerings are common, but what about pumpkin-spice marshmallows, Oreos and English muffins? Search hard enough, and you will discover pumpkin-spice margarine and pasta.

It feels like seasonal overkill, but there is one marriage growing stronger with time: pumpkin-spice beer. We recently spoke with owners and brewmasters of Maryland breweries, and all agreed the demand for it continues to grow annually -- which means higher volumes of production and earlier release schedules.

"It's very American. People love pumpkin pie," said Tom Knorr, founder of Evolution Craft Brewing Co. in Salisbury. "It's just one of those fall things people can't get enough of, and it doesn't seem like it's slowing down." 

With demand and competition on the rise, we asked five men behind these seasonal beers to discuss what sets their pumpkin-spice beers apart from the rest.

Great'ER Pumpkin by Heavy Seas Beer, Baltimore
ABV: 10 percent

For Heavy Seas brewmaster Christopher Leonard, it's about the process. For years, Heavy Seas was happy with its first pumpkin-spice offering, the Great Pumpkin. Then came the idea to age the beer in bourbon barrels for 10 weeks, he said, and the results were undeniable. 

"It makes the beer so much more complex," Leonard said. "There was nothing wrong with the Great Pumpkin, but when we hit it with the bourbon-barrel aging, it turbocharged it."

Alcohol-wise, the Great'ER Pumpkin is strong by design. Leonard admitted he's "not a big fan of the flavor of pumpkin," so he looked to pack a lot of punch, through spices and alcohol, in a single glass.

"I'm not looking to drink four or five pumpkin beers," he said. "I'm looking to have just enough, so you want it to be a satisfying experience."

Where to find it: Heavy Seas Alehouse (1300 Bank St., Little Italy), World of Beer (1724 Whetstone Way, McHenry Row), Hudson Street Stackhouse (2626 Hudson St., Canton) and other area bars. 

The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale by Flying Dog Brewery, Frederick
ABV: 9 percent 

While other breweries lean on spices for flavor, Flying Dog puts 300 pounds of pumpkin puree in each batch of The Fear Imperial Pumpkin Ale. That's an offensive lineman's worth of pumpkin in every 1,500 gallons of beer. Brewmaster Matt Brophy said it is far from an easy process.

"We have our mash mixers in one of our highest spots in the whole facility. We have to physically carry the buckets of the pumpkin puree up to that area to dump them in the vessel," Brophy said. "It's a labor of love."

Brophy said he approached The Fear like a chef tinkering with a new recipe, which led to including "midnight wheat" and chocolate malts in the brewing process. The result is a dark, full-bodied beer that often piques customers' interest, he said. As the popularity of craft beer grows, so does the curiosity of drinkers.

"One of the beautiful things about brewing is that it's really a culinary art," Brophy said. "If you're a foodie and you like to try new flavors, it's the perfect beer."

Where to find it: Max's Taphouse (737 S. Broadway, Fells Point), Racers Cafe (7732 Harford Road, Parkville), Golden West Cafe (1105 W. 36th St., Hampden) and other area bars.

31 by DuClaw Brewing Co., Rosedale
ABV: 6.2 percent 

Before DuClaw was a commercial beer company, it was a brewpub. And in 2002, the restaurant decided to attract crowds on Halloween by introducing a pumpkin-spice lager. DuClaw's 31 was released that holiday, hence the name, and has been a popular DuClaw beer since. Founder Dave Benfield said the goal was to strike a balance between flavor and drinkability. He called it a "fall deck beer."

"Meaning, you're outside with people and this is a beer where you can enjoy three, four, five of them before it wears your palate down," Benfield said.

The beer's recipe contains pumpkin, but the flavor, Benfield said, comes from the notes of caramel, nutmeg and cinnamon. The key was to keep the flavor tame enough to not offend newcomers.

"We tend to be on the mild side of the spices," Benfield said. "Usually, people are like, 'Wow, that's really good. I can drink this!'"

Where to find it: JD's Smokehouse Bar & Grill (3000 O'Donnell St., Canton), Mahaffey's Pub (2706 Dillon St., Canton), Ten Oaks Tavern (3900 Ten Oaks Road, Glenelg) and other area bars.

Patterson Pumpkin by Full Tilt Brewing, Baltimore
ABV: 9 percent

When Full Tilt co-founders and cousins Nick Fertig and Dan Baumiller began as homebrewers, they would throw house parties so friends could try their beer. One, in particular, found a loyal following. 

"The pumpkin beer was always one of the first ones gone," Fertig said. "It was a crowd favorite."

Last year, Full Tilt debuted the commercial version: Patterson Pumpkin, named after the park Fertig lives two blocks south from. Full Tilt's version is "more pumpkin-pie spicy than sweet pumpkin," Fertig said, and it maintains a hoppy flavor. It is also noticeably strong.

"At nine percent, it covers up the heat pretty well but there's still some heat there," Fertig said, referring to the "alcohol heat."

Although the release dates for pumpkin-spice beers have crept into late summer, he said, Patterson Pumpkin is an ideal beer for cold weather.

"There's a lot of controversy as to when to release a pumpkin beer," he said. "I would drink pumpkin beer through the winter. While it's cold out, I think that's a great time to drink it." 

Where to find it: Cat's Eye Pub (1730 Thames St., Fells Point), The Admiral's Cup (1647 Thames St., Fell Point), Water Street Tavern (102 Water St., downtown) and other area bars. 

Jacques au Lantern by Evolution Craft Brewing Co., Salisbury
ABV: 6.3 percent 

Tom Knorr does not like sweet beers, so Evolution's Jacques au Lantern infuses a spicy flavor by fermenting the beer with a Belgian yeast rather than a traditional American ale yeast. Add pumpkin-pie spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, and the result is a beverage made more for beer drinkers than pumpkin-spice obsessives.

"A lot of pumpkin beers I can't drink more than half a pint because they're so sweet," Knorr said. "[Jacques au Lantern] is a great beer because it's more dry than sweet. It still tastes like beer."

Knorr is blown away by the pumpkin-spice craze. Evolution more than doubled its production of Jacques au Lantern from last year to 2014, he said, and it remains a surefire hit at Evolution tasting presentations throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

"It doesn't seem like it's slowing down. It's kind of crazy to me," Knorr said. "One hundred percent of the time when we do a tasting, people are going to buy it. I wish I would have made another 2,000 cases of it."

Where to find it: Birroteca (1520 Clipper Road, Hampden), Nickel Taphouse (1604 Kelly Ave., Mount Washington), Phillips Seafood (601 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor) and other area bars.

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