Thursday, 16 October 2014

Return More Twice To Pumpkin Spice

Update the Third: Grand River Brewing Highballer Pumpkin Ale and Tree Brewing Co. Jumpin' Jack India Pumpkin Ale

I've been sitting on my notes for these for a couple of days, since the Halloween Mood Table spiraled completely out of control and I discovered that, even with the Lady of Marmot's fancy tablet, it takes three hours to shoot and crop a passable forty-second video (trying to film in darkness for the effect didn't help). With that project up and ready (and looking pretty sweet over on my new Tumblr), pumpkin beer is once again getting the attention it deserves - this time with an old favourite and one completely new to me. First up is a fall staple in Ontario, Grand River Brewing's Highballer Pumpkin Ale.
The lighting doesn't completely do it justice, but this is a lighter-toned and clearer brew that most of the season's pumpkin ales, a turning-leaf ochre rather than dark copper like Citrouille, Jumpin' Jack or Nightmare on Mill Street. It froths up a sizable but short-lived head on the pour, being sharply carbonated but quite light-bodied.
Highballer is a smooth clean-drinking pale ale, with bitter hop on the palate and a nutmeg/allspice aftertaste. There isn't a lot here that could be attributed directly to the presence of pumpkin, but that doesn't seem to be a necessity for a good pumpkin-spice beer. The ones on the label, apparently, are more crucial than those in the mash. Cinnamon is present but, wisely, used judiciously. Particularly on the aftertaste, it's part of a subtle "baked goods" presence without standing out on its own. A crisp and bitter brew like this could become downright unpleasant if overspiced, especially with cinnamon.
After (yet again - you owe me, journalism) a sample of Growers Pumpkin Spice, the cinnamon flavour became entirely undetectable, and Highballer parses as simply a lighter ale with faint allspice finish. This is also one of the drier pumpkin beers I've tried so far, which makes it stand out among what are typically sweet recipes.
Highballer is an autumn seasonal ale first and a pumpkin beer second - and they seem to be embracing this by toning down the Halloween imagery. A pumpkin is more or less mandatory, to get "fall" across at a glance and draw the limited attention of the novelty beer enthusiast - but there's nothing particularly all-hallowed about their train. Unless, of course, that's a ghost train (or a goth DJ) on there, in which case AagaAHAGhAaAAaA! I've been secretly spooked! The intriguing combination of mild spice and strong ale in this season's better pumpkin beers has definitely increased my interest in the inevitable rush of christmas spiced stouts and porters...but those have an unfortunate tendency to be completely killed with cloves.
Tree Brewing Co.'s Jumpin' Jack India Pumpkin Ale definitely has standout packaging. The oversized bottle, emblazoned with what looks like a bright orange Wanted poster for the Halloween Bandit, is an immediate attention grabber and makes the contents perfectly clear - "novelty beer, in here". They've gone with a Halloweenish name, but artwork of the popular and versatile "some pumpkins" school. Tree Brewing does go all-out with three gourds depicted, where two seems to be the going rate.
This is another vigorously carbonated one, with a thick 'root beer float' head that kept its integrity a surprisingly long time for an IPA - though, this is an unusually husky IPA overall. It has a strange nose, comparable to oily herbs or even soap. My mug was more than thoroughly rinsed with pure Ontario tapwater - I do consider myself a journalist after all, and would never permit such a flagrant lapse to occur and taint my objectivity. The pungent combination of pumpkin-spice and aggressive hops ends up cutting through the rest of the flavours, like cilantro when one specifically asked for it held and said please twice.
The flavour text promises grapefruit, and unlike the purely-pith bite of a heavily Citra or Centennial-hopped beer, this is the full ruby red grapefruit experience. It's not quite at the point of Great Lakes Beer's Canuck (formerly Crazy), where with a drop of lemon juice you could pass it off as a radler, but the fruit is prominent and unmistakable. Grapefruit seems, on first consideration, to be completely incompatible with pumpkin, but the pumpkin spice is so underplayed that one only detects the aftermath of the clash. Before drinking the Growers' Pumpkin Spice Cider - itself getting more candle-like and noxious as it grows flatter, but my integrity stops somewhere short of buying an unnecessary second bottle), it came off as a strongish IPA with an aftertaste of spices and an unfortunate fancy-soap characteristic. After the Growers, it tasted like a regular strongish IPA that was just hopped kind of weirdly. I think the moral of this story is need to stop drinking things that taste like home accents.
Jumpin' Jack isn't exactly a bad beer - there's a quality India Pale Ale under the spicing, which is just subtle enough to allow it to be perceived. This doesn't mean I want another one, though - even at the modest enough (for a "limited edition", at least) price of $5.35 for 650 ml., there are competing pumpkin beers that pull off the crucial balance of malt, hop and spice with more aplomb - including co-reviewee Highballer

This review ends once we hit October 31st or I run out of brands to try, and the latter may be approaching - I haven't seen a new pumpkin brew in town since Stack released Last Bite, and holiday products are already starting to eat shelf space at the LCBO. I still have two in reserve, though - this year's runs of Black Creek's and Great Lakes' Pumpkin Ale. Provided I take charging breaks from Smash Bros. on DS, instead of just plugging into the wall and setting up camp, I should have my thoughts on them posted this weekend.

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