Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is this a good idea?

Not every screw up turns out of be an unmitigated disaster.  Some fall more into the "Pleasant surprise from a dumb idea" category, or "What was I thinking?"
            A couple of years ago, as the cooler days of fall turned the palate towards more robust brews my friend Jim and I began to talk about brewing a beer for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  I had brewed several other beers lately so there was enough of a selection we could try something fairly exotic and it would not be a big deal if it didn't turn out.
            For myself, the best part of Thanksgiving is the pumpkin pie.  Hands down, I would prefer to eat pie and drink beer than mess around with turkey and congealed cranberry shaped like the can it came from.  The natural sweetness of brown ale would work well with the pumpkin pie spice but our revolutionary idea was; rather than put pumpkin in a beer, why not put beer in a pumpkin.
            Getting a big pumpkin turned out not to be that big of an issue, we never weighed it but I would guess it weighed 40 or 50 pounds.  However, once we had it we faced several logistical issues that called for the suspension of certain brewing maxims. 
            What is the volume of a 50 lb. pumpkin?  A pumpkin is hollow, sort of, but without knowing the thickness of the skin there was no way of knowing what kind of carrying capacity a pumpkin has.  In theory, one could calculate the volume by measuring the pumpkin but ours had a non-standard circumference and we didn't have the mathematical skills for such calculations anyway.  So we just guessed and figured it would either be a stronger 5 gallon batch or a slightly weaker six gallons.
            Is it possible to make a pumpkin airtight after cutting the top out to scoop out the seeds, or to use a technical term, pumpkin guts?  While the wort was happily boiling, we cut the top of the pumpkin off with a butcher knife and scooped out what seemed like 20 pounds of seeds and those weird stringy pumpkin intestines.  Since our pumpkin had an odd shape we duct taped it to half a plastic barrel to add stability.   We stuck an airlock in the pumpkin lid to release the pressure but this turned out to just be mainly ornamental, since the top of the pumpkin was in no way airtight.
Can a pumpkin be sterilized?  Short answer, no.  However, my thoughts were, "Hey, what kind of bacteria can live inside a pumpkin anyway?"  With this kind of negative thinking dashed aside, we left our pumpkin vessel alone and drank another beer, adding a can of cooked pumpkin to the wort for a double dose of gourd.
Will a pumpkin hold water? If so, for how long?  This may sound silly but it was a legitimate concern.  Was our pumpkin going to get soggy and precious beer start seeping from its pores?  In this respect, we hedged our bets by only keeping the beer in the pumpkin for 24 hours, and then we moved it to a carboy and proceeded like any other beer.
            I have to say, I was surprised with the way this beer turned out.  I was expecting something nasty, the kind of beer you give to the one beer-mooching friend who is always hanging around, but it developed into a beer with subtlety and depth.  With the first drink, the pumpkin pie spices were on the forefront but as that faded into the ale's sweetness the slow taste of pumpkin floated to the top. 
            However, in just as much as the beer was not horrible, it wasn't really very good either.  After considerable research I realized, while I thought I liked pumpkin pie, I really only like the sugar, whipped cream and spices.  Basically, all of the stuff which hides the taste of pumpkin.  There is a reason you rarely see just pumpkin on a menu, it tastes gross.  The reason I wasn't really excited about my pumpkin ale is I don't like pumpkin.
            I had a similar experience trying to make a good hefewiezen.  I tried a couple of times but eventually realized:  I don't like hefewiezen.  I'm not a huge fan of big Belgian beers and I haven't made one is several years.  I am still searching for a saison I like enough to get me excited about making one.  I used to not care for Scottish beers but after having a few good ones I plan on brewing one this fall.
            Homebrewing is all about experimentation and expanding your beer repertoire.  Just ask yourself if you even like the flavors or styles you are thinking about putting together.  If you don't like broccoli, then don't try to make a beer out of it.  My advise is know what you enjoy.  It is a lot easier to buy a few beers until you know something will work before devoting the time and effort to creating a beer you would never like, even if it is made perfectly.

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