DRINKS: The Great Pumpkin
By the time the frost is really on the pumpkin, you’re likely to have seen enough pumpkin beers to make your eyes glaze over. Pumpkin beer can be copycat brewing at its worst— but when it’s good, it is very good, and New Jersey boasts a few pumpkin brews that rise above the sickly-sweet, spice-loaded versions that make most beer geeks cringe.
“Pumpkin beers are essentially mutts,” says Eric Boerner, a pastry chef and instructor at the Culinary Arts Center at Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) in Mount Holly. “It’s important to know the base beer from which the pumpkin beer is made to find the best cheese to pair. Is it a brown ale, a lager, a barleywine?”
Boerner is an enthusiastic hobbyist cheesemaker and a big fan of beer-and-cheese pairings. He arranged a cheese tasting in RCBC’s sleek, well-equipped theater kitchen to match cheeses with this year’s crop of pumpkin beers.
We didn’t have to go very far to find good pumpkin ales. Mount Holly boasts two popular craft breweries; both make tasty, and very different, pumpkin ales. Village Idiot Brewing Company, just steps away from the college, makes a fairly light, quaffable ale that Boerner found to be “clove-forward,” without the cinnamon sweetness that usually marks most pumpkin brews.
“A beer like this is very Gouda-friendly,” says Boerner, “and that’s because Gouda is a mutt cheese. It can be made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, even goat’s milk, and it can be aged for years to take on a different dimension. Gouda would be my first choice to pair with most pumpkin beers.”
For this beer, he says, “my next choice would be Alpine cheeses like Gruyère, Comté, Beaufort and Abondanz. My favorite of those is Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin.” He says the grassy, nutty notes in these cheeses bring out the earthiness in a pumpkin beer.
“But cloth-bound cheddars also pair amazingly well with pumpkin beer,” says Boerner. “Cabot makes an excellent cloth-bound cheddar, maybe the best anywhere. Here’s where to try something really interesting, like a cheddar called TeaHive from a company called Beehive Cheese Company in Utah—Utah! It’s rubbed with black tea and bergamot orange and aged for nine months.”
It is the most eye-opening of any of Boerner’s selections. The rich, pale yellow cheese has a noticeable bergamot aroma with notes of fresh orange peel and Earl Grey tea, and it plays well with the other beers on hand.
The nearby Spellbound Brewing Company makes two pumpkin ales, using a toned-down barleywine-style ale. “Our barleywine is plenty sweet to start with, so we don’t even need to use pumpkin—it’s only there for the sugars in fermentation anyway,” says co-owner John Companick. “We add allspice, vanilla beans, cloves, nutmeg and ginger to get that pumpkin-ale flavor and a little bite.” His mock-pumpkin ale has a pleasant vegetal tone with strong hints of pumpkin seed and pepper. “That’s the ginger root,” Companick says proudly.
Spellbound’s other pumpkin ale is aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, which gives the fairly high-octane beer (8.1% ABV) a rich, smoky burnt-sugar spin. “Alpine cheeses will work well with this version,” says Boerner, “and so will soft, runny cheeses like brie and Camembert.
You can also layer some flavors and serve the cheeses on hearty bread or flatbread crackers, then add a smear of quince paste or truffle honey, even dried apricots.” These pairings elevate our tasting—and the much-maligned beer style—to a very enjoyable place. River Horse Brewing Company in Ewing makes an impressive imperial pumpkin ale dubbed Hipp-OLantern, using fresh pumpkin, molasses and hand-crushed whole spices in its potent (8.5% ABV) brew. For this beer, Boerner brings out a strikingly beautiful cheese called Prairie Sunset from Roth Cheeses of Wisconsin. A sweet cheddar with hints of butterscotch, it is heavily spiked with annatto, which imparts the flaming orange color that gives the cheese its name.
I suggest our last pairing, my favorite thing to eat with pumpkin beer: nachos. It was a pairing Boerner has never tried. I topped thick-cut tortilla chips with shredded pepper jack cheese and baked it just long enough to melt the cheese, then topped the nachos with dollops of salsa and sliced jalapeños. The layers of corn, dairy, tomato and pepper cut through the sugar and spice to bring out pumpkin beer’s truer flavors.
“Wow,” says the chef, giving a thumbs-up. “Now that is a really good match for pumpkin beer!”
Rowan College at Burlington County
1 High Street, Mt. Holly
Village Idiot Brewing Co.
42 High Street, Mt. Holly
Spellbound Brewing Co.
10 Lippincott Lane, Suite 12, Mt. Holly
River Horse Brewing Co.
2 Graphics Drive, Ewing