Judging Beers by Sam Fitz – Vol. 3: Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales

Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and soon to open Smoke & Barrel. Read Sam’s take on Life & Limb here.

Sam will be checking the post throughout the day to answer any follow up questions you may have.

You can’t blame people that don’t like beer. But you can help them. Generic American light
beers are everywhere, and many perceptions as to what beer actually is are generated by the
pervasiveness of mainstream brands. Craft beer, though, is rapidly expanding and brings with
it an astounding diversity that defies a single notion of “beer”. If you’re familiar with the wide
range of beer styles available, then you should be able to convert your beer-bashing friends.

Sweet, malty amber lagers and English brown ales are good ammunition for rum and coke
devotees, or other sweet mixed-drink drinkers. Whiskey aficionados are usually quite satisfied
with a hefty barrel-aged brew. Coffee stouts can wow the caffeine dependent populace (this isn’t
rocket science). But perhaps the most astonishing introduction you can offer is to the growing
world of sour beers.

Sour was once the norm for beer. Before developments in sanitization procedures and scientific
knowledge, the environment in which a beer was brewed impacted the outcome as much as
any ingredient deliberately added, and the effect was usually some degree of sour presence. If
you’ve ever had the displeasure of consuming sour milk, then you’ve been rudely introduced
to Lactobacillus, an omnipresent bacteria with a penchant for sour. Lacto lives in your fridge
and in your brewery, constantly searching for lactose and other sugars from which it can derive
nourishment and convert to lactic acid. Brettanomyces (affectionately known as Brett by sour
lovers), another souring agent, is a yeast usually found on the skins of fruit, and it has been
championed by the Belgians in the form of Lambics, Geuezes & Flemish Reds.

Continues after the jump.

With modern technology and procedures, the brewing environment is largely prohibited from
contributing sour agents, thus all but driving sour out of beer. The traditional sour Belgian styles
mentioned above were nearly extinct just decades ago. Now, the craft renaissance is exploring
the breadth of beer, and sour is returning in a big way.

You might be asking yourself, “What does this all have to do with pumpkin beers?” As those
delicious seasonal brews roll into DC, there’s no better time to debunk a very common, and
understandable, myth: Jolly Pumpkin is a brewery, not a beer made from gourds (though they do
make “La Parcela”, their pumpkin seasonal). An all-sour brewery founded in Dexter, Michigan
by Ron Jefferies in 2004, Jolly Pumpkin is at the forefront of the sour beer movement.

Using Old World techniques that require more time and patience than modern brewing, Jolly
Pumpkin ages all its brews in large oak casks that nurture their own unique colonies of wild
yeast and bacteria. Ron says the wood gives his beer “unmatched depth of character, and
subtleness of flavor,” but he also blends all of his beers from different casks to achieve the
optimal degree of influence from wild organisms. The outcome can be mildly to intensely sour,
and it is an ace up your sleeve if you’re trying to convert a wine or cider drinker to the world of

Jolly Pumpkin’s most celebrated offering, Oro De Calabaza (The Gold of the Jack o’lantern),
is definitely an eye opener. This 8% golden ale pours a cloudy but brilliant straw yellow, has
an enticing bright white head, and leaves a neat lacing pattern on the side of the glass. The

appearance matches the images conjured by the label of hidden treasure. It begs you to inspect

One whiff and the wild yeast makes itself plainly known. Scents of lemon zest, fresh green
apples and perhaps green grapes are front and center. Underneath, there is an earthiness from the
yeast that conjures thoughts of fresh-cut grass and sometimes referred to by beer lovers as musty
or horse-blankety (in a good way!). The hopping is subtle but there is a noticeable spiciness
arising from the type of hops used. Overall, the nose is complex and very appetizing.

The first sip confirms what is alluded to by the aromas. There is a bone-dry character arising
from the souring agents that is balanced by comforting yet subtle malt sweetness. The hops
are recognizable in the finish of the beer, adding a bitterness that plays nicely with the mouth-
puckering sour dryness. If you set Oro aside for a few minutes, the lingering palate flavors
continually remind you that you still have work to do–there’s a magnificent beer that cannot be

Jolly Pumpkin’s beers are as close to unique as it gets and, if you haven’t tried them, you owe
it to yourself to broaden your understanding of beer. Good beer establishments usually have at
least a couple of their offerings in 750 mL bottles, and it’s always a treat when kegs find their
way into DC. So, this autumn, help yourself and your friends. Savor a seasonal sour.

17 Comment

  • My favorite brewery going right now! MI beer represent.

    • austindc

      Agreed! The folks at Jolly Pumpkin are amazing, though I really dig sour beers. I know some folks don’t. Hope to get up to MI some day to visit the brewery!

  • Never had this offering, but did have the chance to try Jolly Pumpkin’s Sour Pale Ale (think it’s called Firefly). Definitely unique and made me want to try some more of Jolly Pumpkin’s brews…thanks for the review Sam, any other suggestions/favorite JP brews to try?

  • My other favorites from him are La Roja (Flemish Red) & Luciernaga (The Firefly, Belgian Pale Ale). If you want something lighter and easy drinking Bam Biere (Saison) and Weizen Bam (Hefeweizen, but really closer to a Berliner Weisse) are great.

  • I am with Sam on the La Rioja, and I also love their Biere de Mars (a Biere de garde). That one has proven tricky to find here in DC, though – it is out of season, generally out in the spring.

    Sam, are you guys going to pick up Fuego del Otono or La Parcela this fall?

  • I love sour beer! Ever since I tried some traveling in Belgium in the 90s I’ve looked for it in the US, but it was hard to find other than the occasional Rodenbach. I did have a US-made sour beer at Church Key last year that was SO sour as to be almost undrinkable … even to me, who really likes sour. Hopefully Jolly Pumpkin is making some sour, but still approachable, stuff.

    And I agree that sour beers are a good way to hook wine snobs. It seems like there’s a lot of diversity and sophistication in US beer right now. Maybe because beer is cheaper to produce and requires less initial investment, beer makers are more able to experiment and fill niches (like sour beer)than US winemakers can.

  • We have pre-ordered both and do expect them this fall.

  • claire

    I love sour beers and Jolly Pumpkin is definitely doing some great things! It’s great to see other sour beer aficionados here. Seems like they’re getting more and more popular (at least, I hope they are because it means they’ll get easier to find!).

  • I’m not a fan of sour beers but some of my friends are and while I tried some of Jolly Pumpkins sours in the past and didn’t enjoy them those who enjoy sours said they were great.

    I grew up in Michigan and Jolly Pumpkin is one of my favorite Michigan breweries, also their restaurant is my favorite in Ann Arbor. Their Bam Noire was the beer that actually turned me into a beer lover!

  • being belgian, sour beers have been what I grew up on. It’s nice to be able to find some real flemish reds now in DC and not rely on lambics and krieks, which to me do not really encompass the vinegar flavors of a true dark sour ale.

  • andy

    Great conceptual post on sour beer! I love it! (Though the wife will roll her eyes when I tell her about it. Probably because she’ll think I want to make some. Which may be correct.)

  • I have a nice peach sour saison going that I soured with Brett C and the dregs of an Oro De Calabaza. Beautiful pellicle just formed. Can’t wait for it to be ready.

  • It seems like Michigan trails only California and Colorado these days as a craft beer lover’s Mecca. So many great breweries up there!

    I’m glad to see that sour beers are gaining in popularity, too. The only bad thing about Jolly Pumpkin is that you can only get big bottles of their stuff around here. I wish they’d either put out a sampler box, or do a tap takeover someplace in town.

  • I’m lucky enough to work at the brew pub in Ann Arbor and it is always a pleasure when we get the people who have never heard of us or say they do not like beer so that we can better educate them. It also helps have both Oro and La Roja on tap because they are definitely the aces up our sleeves to get the uneducated on our side!

    The brewery is also doing its best to keep us stocked with all of the seasonal beers so if you are looking for something in particular and are in the area stop by and pick up some bottles! (this does not include the rare bottles like the grand reserves, one time releases, and perseguidor)

  • Not to disappoint, but their brewery isn’t open to the public currently. If you want to patronize their public establishment, you have to go to Main Street in Ann Arbor, where they have a brew pub.

    And I’ll agree that the Jefferies are awesome people. I work (on the weekends) about 150 yards from their brewery, and they come in to buy cleaning and storage supplies every once in a while. Always pleasant and up for a short conversation on beer in general, or how the brewery is doing.

  • Maracaibo especial is the best thing I’ve ever, ever, drank.

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