Pumpkin beers

Spice it up with pumpkin beers. (Baltimore Sun/Lloyd Fox)

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.