The pumpkin patch grows wild

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IT’S NO longer good enough to make a beer that tastes, crazily enough, like pumpkin pie. Heck, even “imperial” pumpkin beer, whose higher alcohol content offers a decent buzz with dessert, is beginning to blend into the background.

No, if you really want to grab the attention of fickle beer drinkers, you’ve got to come up with something like the new one from Kutztown’s Saucony Creek Brewery. Its tongue-twisting Captain Pumpkin’s Maple Mistress Ale is an imperial pumpkin (9.5 percent alcohol) topped with “rum spices,” maple syrup and butternut squash.

Exotic flavors layered on top of traditional spices are all the rage this season. Just listen to the stack of cases vying for attention at your friendly distributor, and you’ll hear a chorus of newfangled pumpkins yammering away with apple, cranberry and even caraway.

I tell you, it’s an absolute squash racket!

Among the breweries kicking up a ruckus this autumn: Southern Tier, of New York, which already brews Pumking, a full-bodied imperial pumpkin that many regard as a pumpkin benchmark, added Warlock, an imperial pumpkin stout.

Urban Chestnut, from St. Louis, introduced Count Orlok, a black-wheat pumpkin ale. Traveler Beer Co., from the same company that makes Sam Adams, released what it’s calling the first pumpkin-flavored shandy. Jack-O-Traveler is a mix of wheat ale, lemon and pumpkin.

Avery Brewing, in Colorado, turned out Rumpkin, a rum-barrel-aged ale that, I believe, at 15 percent alcohol, is the strongest pumpkin ale in the universe. Too strong? Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing’s new rum-aged Good Gourd Almighty is “just” 8.5 percent alcohol.

That’s just the skin of the ol’ pumpkin rind. Dig down and you’ll find imperial pumpkin porter, chocolate-pumpkin porter, oatmeal-pumpkin porter, maple syrup-infused pumpkin porter, chipotle-pumpkin porter, pumpkin-and-strawberry saison, smoked pumpkin cider, sour pumpkin ale, pumpkin stout, spruce-flavored pumpkin stout, pumpkin barley wine and, inevitably, pumpkin IPA.

There are so many pumpkins out there that some breweries – notably Evil Genius, from West Grove, Chester County – are now making two, three or more different pumpkins each year. Evil Genius packs three varieties into its Pumpkin Patch variety case, including Trick or Treat pumpkin porter.

Meanwhile, the brewers of the Iron Hill Brewery chain have pumpkinized porter, stout, Belgian dubbel, Bavarian Marzen and even tart Berliner weissbier. I’m sure that the Germans who created the 500-year-old beer purity law are spinning in their graves.

A pair of humongous pumpkin fests, one in the Pacific Northwest and one in Philly, underscore the growth of craft brewers’ favorite gourd.

Just eight years ago, in Seattle, Elysian Brewing launched the Great Pumpkin Beer Festival with a grand selection of 10 pumpkin beers. This year, it’ll pour more than 60 varieties, including a pair of oddball collaborative brews it produced with San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery – a Pumpkin Belgian Tripel and a Pumpkin Baltic Porter made with caraway and cinnamon.

Not to be outdone, the Institute Bar, in Spring Garden, says its fifth annual Charlie Brown Pumpkin Festival on Oct. 5 will showcase at least 83 pumpkin beers. The neighborhood pub is having Fegley’s Brew Works, in Allentown, craft as many as five exclusive pumpkins for the fest.

I asked Charlie Collazo, who owns the Institute with his wife, Heather, what explains the growth and diversity of pumpkins.

“There’s a couple things I noticed. First, a lot of breweries that produced harvest ales for the fall,” he said, referring to those difficult-to-brew ales made with freshly harvested hops, “some of those guys are leaning away from them and making pumpkin beer instead.

“The other thing is that it’s an opportunity for breweries to get into different styles and set themselves apart from a massive crowd of pumpkin beer.”

Indeed, while BeerAdvocate.com lists more than 400 pumpkin beers, many of them taste predictably similar – a creamy, malty body enhanced with a standard mix of cinnamon, ginger, clove, allspice and nutmeg.

So, brewmasters tweak their recipes and, as in the case of Susquehanna Brewing, in Pittston, Pa., come up with the likes of Peach Pumpkinberry, a pumpkin ale made with peaches and black raspberries.

That sure doesn’t sound like mom’s pumpkin pie.

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Each autumn, I hear the same question: Whose pumpkin beer is the best?

This year, I’m helping the Institute Bar launch the city’s first pumpkin-beer contest, and you can help judge the winner.

If you think you know your pumpkins, just send me an email with “pumpkin judge” in the subject line. I’ll select a panel that will judge dozens of varieties at the Charlie Brown Pumpkin Festival and name the best of show.

You don’t have to be a professional judge to participate. This will be a fun, casual beer-tasting session. However, you must:

•Be at least 21 years of age.

•Plan to spend two hours sampling beer on the morning of Oct. 5, at the Institute, 12th and Green Streets, Spring Garden.

After judging, participants will receive free general admission and unlimited samples at the festival.

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