I finally broke down and bought my first growler of beer. It sounds funny, but I had never bought beer in that quantity before. For the uninitiated, a growler is a 1/2 gallon, or 4 pints, or 64 oz. The term is said to come from back in the days where it was common to purchase beer from your local bar in a bucket. The beer's carbonation in the metal bucket would make a growling sound....I don't know if I buy that or not, but whatever.
I like the idea of buying in reusable containers from your local beer maker, the same way you might buy sausage from a local butcher, or bread from the local bakery, or take your reusable grocery bag to your local grocer, but I do have some complaint and it is some of the reason that I never bought one before. A growler of beer costs between $10 and $15 (depending on the type of beer), and the original purchase of the glass container is $4-5 more. That is 64 oz. for $10, or 6.4oz per dollar. I can buy a six pack of most 12 oz. craft beers for about $10, or 7.2oz. per dollar, and the containers are always free. Furthermore, a growler lasts only a few days, where packaged beer is good at least for weeks if not months when kept in the fridge. Sure, at bar prices the same 4 pints of beer could be upwards of $12-$20, so buying in growlers only makes sense for the breweries that don't package their beer....otherwise, it just doesn't pencil.
This leads me to why it was that I bought a growler in the first place. I bought a growler of Dry Dock's Pumpkin Ale, because I couldn't get it for home any other way, and we decided not to make our own this year.
Interestingly, I have tasted three or four pumpkin ales this year, and none of them tasted to me quite right....I think that the light amber ale that most breweries infuse pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices into is the problem. The beer is clear, crisp, and dry. I think the brewers are thinking that they want a light, neutral, or balanced beer so that it doesn't get in the way of the essence of the pumpkin. They tend to use yeasts that don't impart flavor and attenuate really well. I think this philosophy is off the mark. I think of the essence of pumpkin, and pumpkin is actually the filler...it doesn't impart that much flavor, so to capture the essence you need to focus on the color, the spices, and the texture of the pumpkin pie.
Color. It would seem obvious that orange is the color of pumpkin, the official color of Autumn....but as I look at the pumpkin pie, the good home made ones are darker, almost brown on top. But no one is going after the Pumpkin Brown Ale. I might just be waxing poetic like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin.
Spices. It seems obvious, but the difficult thing about spices for commercial breweries is that the character changes over time. I think that breweries are trying to get there pumpkin ales out before halloween, but really they will be better (and unfortunately long sold out) by Thanksgiving.
Texture. This is where I believe that most Pumpkin Ales miss the mark. A pumpkin pie is thick and creamy, never thin and runny. I think that the pumpkin ale needs to be mashed at a high temperature to leave as many unfermentable sugars as possible, leaving behind a thick beer worthy of the pumpkin and spice. Coupled with a yeast that accentuates malt, yet ferments out cleanly, a pumpkin ale starts seeming like a lower alcohol version of a Christmas beer.
Perhaps the issue is that fresh pumpkins start showing up in late September. If you need to get your pumpkin ale out by October 31st, you need to have things ready to go when the pumpkins come in. If I could just save the pumpkin ales I had tried this year another 4 weeks, perhaps they would have turned for the better. I think that age would be the biggest factor, but the beers are so popular that they are usually sold out before Halloween. Too bad.
Happy Halloween Folks!