A fall surprise from Anheuser-Busch: Michelob Pumpkin Spice

THE DAY that beer freaks always feared is upon us. Rivers boiling, the dead rising from the grave, dogs and cats living together – Anheuser-Busch, the big, bad Evil Empire, is brewing . . . a pumpkin ale.

That’s right, the St. Louis behemoth that dumbed down American beer palates with bottle upon bottle of fizzy yellow rice juice is now producing an all-malt version of one of microbrewing’s signature quirky styles.

Pumpkin ale, of course, is not for everybody – and that’s why the new Michelob Pumpkin Spice Ale is so remarkable.

A-B makes zillions of gallons of flavor-deprived beer for the lowest common denominator; y’know, Bud Light. Indeed, the entire craft beer industry was founded on the self-evident truth that people were sick of drinking the same old BudCoorsMiller. And now, Auggie Busch is brewing a beer with nutmeg?

And guess what: It’s pretty damn good.

No, it doesn’t knock your socks off like Aunt Gertrude’s Thanksgiving pie. But this beer, also known on draft as Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale, is very drinkable, with a nice edge of Hallertau and Saaz hops. In fact, given how pumpkin ales tend to floor you with spices, this is one of the few I’ve tasted that had me reaching for a second.

A-B brewmaster George Reisch believes the hopping “was really the key thing” in this beer. “It’s well-balanced between sweetness and bitterness,” he said. “We weren’t worrying about overwhelming people on the initial aroma. This beer shows off the spices and pumpkin real well. “

It’s not like we ever doubted they could do it.

As Michelob product manager John Costello said, “We’re one of the world’s largest brewers, but we’re also one of the best. “

Maybe, but from the looks of it, much of that talent is devoted to producing perfectly consistent yet utterly insipid lagers. A-B cranking out a pumpkin ale is like Danielle Steele suddenly publishing “Naked Lunch. ” Where did that come from?

According to Reisch, the ale was first produced in A-B’s small test brewery in St. Louis, where young brewers are trained and new styles are sampled. Barleywine, Scotch ale, hefeweizen – the trainees knock them off, give them a sip and then dump them down the drain. A thirsty nation never gets to taste them.

The Pumpkin Spice Ale might have faced a similar fate, except lately A-B has been on a variety kick, putting out new brands and flavors to win over fickle consumers.

Initially, A-B had planned to distribute the ale only on tap, as the first of its new line of seasonal beers. But Costello said that after the company’s brewmasters got a good taste of it, they recommended making it part of Michelob’s annual specialty sampler, a 12-pack that includes a bock and a pale ale, among others.

“We’ve been brewing these beers for a long time,” Reisch continued. “It’s kind of like a debutante ball, to come out with these beers and have people actually see them. “

The pumpkin ale, Costello believes, will appeal to both “beer purists and beer novices. “

Compared to Budweiser and the rest, it’s just a blip, of course. But something’s going on:

Earlier this month at the Great American Beer Festival, A-B was named large brewery of the year, picking up five medals, including three golds. Yeah, a couple were for non-alcoholic faux suds, but it also won for Michelob Pale Ale. That’s right, a gold medal on craft brew turf, in a category dominated by the likes of Great Divide, Snake River and BridgePort – some of America’s best small brewers.

You wonder: What’s next?

A-B will continue its seasonal draft series with a winter warmer to be released in the next month or so. And keep your eyes open for Michelob Celebrate, a 24-ounce bottle of holiday lager spiced with vanilla beans and aged in a bourbon barrel. It’ll ring your chimes at 10 percent alcohol.

Could Budweiser Barleywine be next?

Beer radar

When in Cape May, stop in at the cozy Blue Pig Tavern in historic Congress Hall (251 Beach Ave., Cape May). The pub is now serving Blue Pig Tavern Ale in bottles, which between you and me is actually Flying Fish Extra Pale Ale bottled specially for the Victorian B&B crowd . . . Speaking of F.F., congrats to Gene Muller and the crew on its 10th anniversary. The world’s first dot.com microbrewery managed to make it longer on the Web than Pets.com, Flooz and Kozmo combined.

Why yell at your TV when you can suck down your craft beers and listen to beefy Eagles explain why Al Michaels is a dunce? It’s Monday Night Football with WMMR’s Matt Cord at Iron Hill Brewery (1460 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales), next week, featuring defensive lineman Sam Rayburn.

Philly-area brewers will be loading up the shelves in the next two weeks with their winter specialties. Besides 12-ouncers and draft, Troegs Mad Elf is heading down the T-pike this season in three-liter bombers.

Victory Hop Wallop is zeroing in, too, with a keg debut next Friday at Grey Lodge (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair).

Meanwhile, look for Magic Hat Saint Gootz, an unusual dark wheat ale like drinks like a chocolatey bock. Also new on area shelves: Pete’s Wanderlust Cream Ale, Speakeasy Double Daddy IPA and Wychwood Fiddler’s Elbow.

New Guinness flavors may be headed this way. The St. James’s Gate guys have fiddled with the recipe of their famous stout, producing a new version called Guinness Brew 39. It’s described as somewhat hoppier but with the same creamy body. It’s part of a series of new stouts that Guinness is introducing in Ireland to expand its portfolio.

Calendar

TODAY: Grab a taste of the final keg of George’s Fault, the Great American Beer Festival gold-medal winner from Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City). The grand cru style ale, which I wrote about last time around, was brewed by Nodding Head’s Gordon Grubb and Brandon Greenwood, and Home Sweet Homebrew’s George Hummel. Beer tapped 3 p.m. Pay as you go. 215-569-9525.

Nov. 4: Oktoberfest at Cannstatter (9130 Academy Ave., Northeast Philadelphia). Men in lederhosen, women in dirndls, oom-pah music by the Kapelle Fellas and lots of food and beer. Taps open 7 p.m. $7, $8 at the door. 215-855-3376.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Cricket Hill Blide’s Bitter. 

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