TPFBe afraid.

Be very afraid….

Someone…well, make that “someones“, had the audacity to trifle with The Accepted Order of Things. Two gifted brewers – one from a fogbank and one from Perpetual Gloom – squared off and dared each other to come up with a pumpkin beer that doesn’t taste like what would happen if you took a pie wedge, stuffed it into a blender with a bottle of bland ale, pureed it, and lightly strained it.

Heretics! Madmen! You have sinned against The Way Things Are, you insane bastards!…

And I say…”Good“…

Picture2Confession Time: I’m so freakin’ sick of pumpkin beers that all taste like pumpkin pie that I have to stifle a scream every time somebody pours one for me to sample. I know why it’s almost always done that way and I know that many brewers feel they have to make that style so they can sell it. We’re Americans. We’re rut-friendly. We are so habitual that we make lemmings look improvisational by comparison. “Pumpkin” to most of us, suggests that pie, the holiday hearth, the smells of Home and the feeling of family and comfort and regifted fruitcakes and dogs on the sofa and your Uncle Jerry whacking you upside your head while playing what is supposed to be TOUCH (Damnit, Jerry!) football and having to wait upwards of an hour to get into your own bathroom. “Pumpkin” is one of those ultimate, hot-button American comfort words and most brewers are very gun-shy about messing with the idea.

BioShaun2So, along come Shaun O’Sullivan (left) and Dick Cantwell (below). One, a playfully adventurous brewer from San Francisco whose oeuvre includes one or two of just about everything and an impossibly adorable son…and the other the reigning king of the American Pumpkin Beer niche, host of the largest and most off-the-hook pumpkin beer fest held in the United States, whose life is only marred at all by the fact that many people still, after all Elysian’s success, mistake him for Washington’s female Senator. (I don’t know why. He certainly doesn’t have the legs Maria has. Or the razor she shaves them with, apparently.) The story of how this…uh…interesting collaboration came to be is some what obscured by the mists of time – y’know, who dared whom to do what, when, was there taunting involved, and under what rules, etc., etc. –  but the conflicting versions of the tale are laid out right there on the package. Hence the name. But what is inarguable, at least to this Fool, is that what’s inside these two cans represents two of the most interesting, flavorful, most outside-the-box versions of the fast-becoming-a-cliche concept of “pumpkin beer” that we’ve ever seen in this country.

Photo by WashingtonBeerBlog.com

Photo by WashingtonBeerBlog.com

Apparently, the rules of this little pissing match read that you could not resort to any of the tried ‘n’ true flavor profiles that have made pumpkin such a frenzied addition to…well, practically everything. It was also bound by the fact that, as infusions for brewing purposes go, pumpkin is one of the most subtle and hardest to register when almost anything is added to it. “Let the pumpkin speak” seems to have been an underlying theme and both beers do just that. Both list pumpkin juice and puree as the main ingredient. I don’t know if the gentleman’s agreement stipulated that neither could contain more than two infusions but that’s how it turned out and, speaking as a former chef who has done everything he could imagine with our All-American gourd, I’ve never tasted any group of two anythings that were as inspired, counter-intuitive, and ultimately successful as “He Said/He Said“.

HeSaid_TripelDick Cantwell’s choice of a combination of Vietnamese cinnamon and caraway seeds has some roots in Lebanese cuisine, specifically a couple of popular rice dishes that are served as desserts. I happened upon these when working with a fine Lebanese chef on an island near Seattle and was stunned at the aromas and subtle, almost floral flavors. The only other common use is in pickling, in which both are somewhat minor players in a whole laundry list of aromatics. Dick opted for a Baltic Porter-styled Lager. Porters, of course, are ales, so even this base for the beer was a big intuitive leap which worked out beautifully. The roastiness of the Porter style is stated with real muscle in this beer, in a lush bed of chocolate, molasses, and ground coffee. Atop that earthy goodness, the pumpkin registers as a creamy, rounded fruitiness, with a caramelized sweetness that fits the Baltic profile exactly. Wrapped around that, the strong, rich, sweetness of the pungent Vietnamese cinnamon merges beautifully with the caraway to produce a residual flavor of licorice that stands apart from the other two without obscuring either. The overall impression of is a festive and colorful dark beer that requires absolutely no specific food knowledge at all to appreciate. And the choice to make this as a Lager gives it a lighter, more approachable drinkability without at all diminishing the impact of its roasted intensity.

HeSaid_PorterShaun’s flavor choices may have been even more odd. Galangal (guh-LANG-guh) is a woody, tough, rhizome usually used in Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking. It’s distantly related to ginger but more citrusy and piney; almost like a hop flower in its effect on sauces like Green Curry. Tarragon is, of course, occasionally used in Asian cooking but is primarily known as a sweet herb that shows up in dozens of French dishes and sauces, like the brilliant buttermilk salad dressing that was taught to me by a noted French chef in DC and which I’ve used ever since. It’s floral sweetness and overtones of pickled fruit is powerful and direct. I’ve cooked with both frequently, in the past, but I have to confess that it never once occurred to me to use them together. Shaun’s infusion of the two in this gorgeous Belgian-style Tripel give it a bursting fruitiness that sweetly overlays the Belgian yeasts and boosts the natural creaminess of the pumpkin. The tarragon presents right on the tip of the tongue and is followed instantly by the cirtusy tang of the galangal. Both perfectly complement the pumpkin without hiding it, an effect I would have bet money against. The same ingredients were used in the inaugural version of this ale and I think, without asking, that the recipe was subtly tweaked this time around. This, along with the Elysian version, adds up to a near-perfect marriage of beer style, infusions, and textures. This is creamy ale and will be a killer food pairing for a bewildering range of cuisines, from formal French to country Thai.

???????????????????????????????The sheer creativity of these two beers, the obviously conscious determination to avoid cliches and actually reinvent the pumpkin beer, and the astronomical skill level of both brewers makes these two unique in what is fast becoming a glut of pumpkin brews, especially now that the style has busted out of its former window of fall/winter seasonal and is becoming very nearly a year-round style. Make no mistake about this: sooner or later, the average craft beer fan will get tired of any endless repetition of one-note pumpkin beers and those who have actually tried to broaden the stylistic sweep of the things will become the core of an evolved style that stands on its own, without the crutch of the pie wedge character. I’ve resisted assigning scores to pumpkin beers because I really do think the style is in its absolute infancy but, if I did, these two would both get an easy 100 Points. Last year, I would have said, if forced to choose, that I liked the Tripel a hair better than the Baltic. This year, it may well be the reverse. Luckily, as each pack contains two of each, I don’t have to choose. Many, many beer fans will not agree with my fondness for this Titanic Twosome and will embrace their pie-spice rut and that’s fine. But those of us who appreciate different takes and great, thoughtful attempts to actually advance the art of brewing will find these beers fascinating, engrossing, and completely delicious. He Said/He Said is NOT made in tremendous quantities, so if you’re inclined to get Outside The Box a bit, find these NOW.


Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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