Monday, February 15, 2010

Jolly Pumpkin's Oro de Calabaza: More (Slightly Less) Sour Ale and the Question of Natural Beer

It's not often that I send text messages. I'm definitely a late adopter when it comes to alternatives to actually looking someone in the eye and having a real conversation. Heck, I barely even knew what a blog was until I started writing this one.... It's even rarer that I stop midway through a meal or a glass of wine or beer to text someone about it, but that's exactly what I did a couple of nights ago.

My wife and I were hanging out with friends at Teresa's Next Door in Wayne, PA, one of the great bastions of beer in the Philly burbs. (Actually, their wine list is pretty respectable, too, but that's perhaps a story for another day.) Started out with Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek on draft then moved from tart to bitter with a pint of Racer 5 IPA, pulled from the beer engine. As tasty as they both were, it was the next beer that really fired on all cylinders: Oro de Calabaza from Dexter, Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. I've really enjoyed everything I've tried from Jolly Pumpkin but this bottle took it to another level. Hazy, pale gold in the glass; slightly funky, slightly sour, just enough richness, redolent of honeysuckles (my friend Pete nailed it) and showing a subtle oak influence. Really well balanced. A complete, beautiful, killer beer.

Oro de Calabaza is a strong golden ale made in the bière de garde tradition. At 8% alcohol, it's not a session beer (JP makes their Bam Bière for that), more a beer to sit and contemplate AND to unabashedly enjoy. Like all of Jolly Pumpkin's brews, it's fermented in open vats, availing itself at least partially of naturally occurring wild yeasts, aged in old oak casks and then bottle conditioned before release. This bottle was from "Batch 409."

Drinking it, I was reminded of a question my friend Cory Cartwright had casually asked in a recent post at his blog, Saignée: "What are some good natural beers? Any non-Belgian stuff you’re digging (because everyone will say Belgian)?" I was inclined to answer right away with, "Jolly Pumpkin. Try anything they brew." Instead, I ended up texting him, mid-meal and mid-beer, about a week later. He probably thought I was nuts but, hey, I was inspired.

Aside from a less immediate sense of inspiration, the reason I hadn't responded to Cory's question sooner is that it raised, for me, much larger questions. Questions that I've been pondering ever since.

What is natural beer? And is there even such a thing?

I don't think the exact same parameters used to describe natural wine can be applied, because beer making is perforce a more manipulative endeavor than wine making. Are we simply talking about spontaneous, wild yeast fermentation or should the answer go beyond that to include farming and overall production techniques?

I'm not sure I have a clear answer to these questions. But I'd be happy to hear yours.


Anonymous said...

I figured you were simply speaking in tongues, or at least the texting equivalent of speking in tongues. I need to find out who in the Bay Area has the stuff, and I will report back.

David McDuff said...

Hey Cory,

Based on my limited experiences with the Bay Area beer bar scene, I'd say check in at Toronado or Monk's Kettle in SF. As for retail, I couldn't begin to suggest a shop but it may help to know that Jolly Pumpkin is handled by Shelton Brothers Importers.

chris said...

I have been thinking a lot recently on wild/natural beer being a brewer and wine lover myself. I guess you could say geuze/lambic would be the only natural beer since they use ambient yeasts to ferment but I am unsure of where they would source their malt nowadays if you wanted to consider the farming methods as well. I would consider Saison Dupont, especially their Foret, to be a natural beer. All ingredients are sourced from their farm which farms sustainably and their yeast strain is native to the brewery. I am pretty sure, though, that they would innoculate now and not let the ambient yeast strains do their thing. I am not sure that natural beer fits in the same definition as for wine.

Kevin said...

Probably more so than any other brewery America, Jolly Pumpkin emodies many of the same values as my favorite natural, or simply honest wines. Everything that Ron Jeffries, the brewer at JP makes spends time in barrels, but many-use barrels with his own house mix of wild yeast/bacteria. The brews have a definite house character.

The "natural" component of beer is a bit tougher, but without a doubt Saison Dupont speaks strongly of it's place of origin, not to mention it is an absolutely fantastic beer. I'd also put forth Orval, though a bit more polarizing (it is a love/hate sort of beer) on the short list as well.



Kevin said...

Oh and Cory, if your hunting these things in SF, try City Beer

Mike I. said...

Pretty nice article. I've actually visited Jolly Pumpkin a few years ago while I was in the Detroit area. Open vat, spontaneous fermentation with the help of the house (mutated) Belgian strain. Aged in various mixes of used oak containing different "bugs".

I'm a bit perplexed at the term "natural beer" myself. Is he referring to natural conditioned beers in the bottle, opposed to mass produced beer that is conditioned in a tank and force fed carbonation via a tank? Hmmm. If that's the case, most craft beers found at TND would be. If he's talking about natural in a sense that the beer is brewed with all natural ingredients and fermented with a house wild yeast, bacteria, and micro-flora...well, that's a bit tough to not find outside of Belgium. IE. Cantillon, Rodenbach, etc.

There are some GOOD American breweries though that emulate that style. Jolly Pumpkin, as you mentioned, is the closest thing the U.S. has to a farmhouse brewery. Other breweries making products like that? Check out some select brews from Russian River, Lost Abbey, & Captain Lawrence just to name a few. Also - being you're a local guy, check out McKenzie's (either location). They have some special bottles dosed with brettanomyces, and bacteria that you would enjoy. Check out my posting on the McKenzie's event I attended when you get a chance for more details.


Anonymous said...


City beer is a block away from my work, so I'm way ahead of you.


I'm just trying to form an idea of what "natural" beer could be in raltion to natural wine. More curiousity than anything.

- Cory

David McDuff said...


It seems like we're on the same plate here. Gueuze and lambic are the obvious standard bearers if we're using wild/spontaneous yeast fermentation as the basis for a definition of "natural beer." Ambient yeast fermentation -- not even pitching house-cultured yeasts -- is just one of the many parameters usually used to describe "natural wine."

Saison is a great example. Given how few other breweries are able to grow all or most of their ingredients, the definition for NatBeer pretty clearly needs to be at least somewhat different from that applied in the wine world.


Thanks for your input. I'm dying to get out to Michigan to visit Jolly Pumpkin. The only catch is justifying a trip to Michigan....

I hadn't considered Orval as a benchmark brew for these purposes (though I did just find an excellent article on their brewing methods). What makes you include them on your short list?


Thanks, too, for your input. I've never even been to McKenzie's and hadn't thought of them as a wild-beer brewer. Time to stop by for a visit.

Given that producing all of the involved ingredients is an extreme rarity, I'd go out on a limb based on my knowledge of Cory's take on wine to say that he's thinking of beers that are fermented without the use of any cultured or selected yeasts. Beers simply made with "natural" ingredients and natural carbonation, I think, are probably a bit short of the mark he and I are thinking of.


Maybe we'll be able to get a firmer grip on these questions via our upcoming beer blogging project.

Stay tuned, all.

Joe Manekin said...

DMcD - interesting discussion. The few Jolly Pumpkin brews I have drunk have been my amongst my favorite American beers. That having been said, I find the urge to drink natural beer (however it may be defined) to be less compelling than my (frequent) urge to drink natural wine. Seems to me that the great traditional beers of Europe - as well as the other international breweries which emulate them - do not need to be natural by any definition to be both authentic and delicious. Wine, on the other hand, is another story. In the face of lots of mediocrity and lots of pressure for wineries and parent companies to compete in a business that is increasingly segmented and capital intensive, people do what they can do to sell product. Often times, to the detriment of that product.

Cory, next time you're passing through the peninsula from 10-7pm and have a hankering for beer, K&L sells Jolly Pumpkin amongst many other (four fridges) beers.

Jeff said...

There are so many different ways to create a malt beverage it's hard to say what's a "natural" beer. One things for sure most mass-production brewery make "unnatural" beer with additives, stabilizers, lots of corn & sugar, and forced carbonation, not that small brewers don't use some of those techniques as well.

I'm not exactly familiar with the parameters of natural wine making but I'd consider most craft beers to be "natural". The growing list of organic beers would truly be natural of which there are very few that use open air fermentation. Cantillon %100 Organic Gueuze
would probably be the epitome of a natural beer. As previously mentioned Brasserie-Dupont is right up as well with their bio line of beers and may still use limited open air fermentation.

Daas is one organic Belgian I haven't yet to see in the US-

Bottle conditioned beers are more natural than pasteurized or filtered beer (not that they aren't made with natural ingredients) since they're still alive. So I'd venture to say there are different ways to classify a "natural" beer.

JP opened a great brewpub in Ann Arbor this past September. It's well worth a visit, not only for their beer, the food is excellent as well.

mslaas said...

Moving outside of Belgium, I'd agree with Jeff that brewers who don't add adjuncts to beer would be close to natural -- like German brewers who follow the Reinheitsgebot and only use malted barley, water, hops and yeast.

However, From what I understand (mostly from reading homebrew recipes, as I brew my own) Belgian brewers essentially "chaptalize" by adding sugar to the brew. Not that that would necessarily disqualify them from being natural, I'm just noting that different brewing traditions have different answers to the question, and there's no point in asking the Germans to brew like the Belgians in order to be natural, etc.

To wit, the British Campaign for Real Ale define it as unpasteurized, cask-conditioned ale made from traditional ingredients. No mention of yeast strains. Though they're not aiming at a definition for natural per se.

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