I finally have the opportunity to break out some pumpkin beers! Sure, I had a few during the season, but my health really didn’t let me review any the way I would have liked. It’s time to make up for lost time. Today’s review is from New Belgium and their “Lips of Faith” series; something I have heard much about, but had little opportunity to try. I have mixed feelings going into this bottle because of the following description:
“75% Ale brewed with pumpkin and cranberry juice, 25% ale aged in wooden barrels.”
I love pumpkin beer and barrel-aged beer, so it sounds pretty good, right? Unless you dislike cranberries, but who in their right mind could dislike such a holiday treat? The answer: me. I’m not a big fan of cranberries. In fact, I’m sick of the way every decent juice in the grocery store (cherry, grape, etc, etc) feels the need to add cranberries to it. Needless to say, this annoyance has definitely carried over when they add cranberries to beer. However, since I haven’t even tried it yet I suppose I should keep the belly aching to a minimum. I hope you all appreciate this. Let’s pour!
Aroma 7/12: First sniffs of this beer were very unusual. At first, I thought it had a bit of a skunked, German aroma to it, but as the head settled it revealed itself as a strong musty smell. This was accompanied by the sour of the cranberry, a very bready malt, and a bit of the barrel-aged wood. At this point, it all came together and reminded me of an element of Left Hand’s T.N.T, which was reminiscent of Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup. Granted, this is a much lighter hint of that aroma here than in the T.N.T., but it is still there. Very unusual. Thankfully, as the beer warms it comes more into its element. The tart, sweet cranberry aroma becomes stronger and joins with the bready malts to make it appealing and smell more like a gueuze than any sort of traditional fall seasonal. It is only halfway through the bottle that the mild pumpkin peeks its head out ever so briefly and leaves a hint of spices in its wake.
Appearance 2/3: There isn’t much of the “ruby-hued” shade promised on the bottle, but it’s a good-looking beer nonetheless. Its an ocher center with a lovely gold halo shining around the edges. The occasional hue of tangerine orange is about the closest there is to ruby. The head was small, even with an aggressive pour. The bubbles were tiny and appeared more as a single white presence than an army of little, individual bubbles. However, that white disc has covered my glass for some time now despite the undoubtedly high acid levels present in a beer involving cranberries
Flavor 15/20: Whoa! This beer packs a sour punch right from the get-go! The sour initial taste is quite dominant and refuses to loosen that grip in the backbone. Though in the backbone we are also given a mild pumpkin mellowness and some great fall spices. The pumpkin can really be brought to light when holding the beer in the mouth and inhaling through the nose. A slurp on the other hand helps bring out the wood from the barrel-aging process. In fact, as the beers warms noticeably, the cranberry politely steps aside and lets this pumpkin/spice combo step in, but not without leaving us the bitter aftertaste of cranberries. Very neat. The finish is again sour, but fades into bitter and leaves the mouth salivating. The aftertaste is a faint spice and nice notes from the barrels.
Mouthfeel 5/5: The mouthfeel has a lot of contrasting, pleasant things going on within it. The pumpkin really seems to add a smoothness to this beer not usually found in lambics or tart/sour beers. The carbonation, on the other hand, is quite abundant, but doesn’t err by being prickly. It’s effervescent and what one comes to expect from a fruited or sour beer. The body also feels more substantial that a sour or lambic. This really seems all over the map, but I like what’s happening.
Overall Impression 7/10: The previous sentence says it all. “This beer is all over the map.” Sometimes this works in its favor and other times not. The aroma is much more true to a gueuze than anything proposed on the bottle. The flavor is certainly complex, but never seems to bring those flavors together to cohesion. The mouthfeel is a great example of how seemingly conflicting characteristics can come together for something greater than its parts.
Total 36/50: This beer’s ranking still earns it a “very good” ranking. I appreciate experimentation more than the average drinker, but this did seem a but unusual in places. First off, it seems that this beer is an attempt to mix a pumpkin seasonal with a cranberry gueuze. In theory, sure, they’re both foods one could find at a Thanksgiving dinner. It should work, right? Kinda. While I wouldn’t extend this theory to other Thanksgiving foods (I won’t be putting gravy on my pecan pie anytime soon), this beer finds a way to make it work, even if the taste is unusual.
I must recommend that this beer be drank after warming a bit to truly get any of the pumpkin and spice behind the cranberry, musty, sour notes. The experimentation is super appreciated. Beer should never “settle” or be satisfied with traditional or status quo and this beer definitely is not settling for the norm. It has a lot going for it in different areas: different flavors, different aromas, and different mouthfeels, but seldom to those come together for a true fusion or harmony of flavors. If you’re a gueuze-lover, a sour lover, or just appreciate anything involving Brettanomyces you’ll probably dig this brew (not that I’m sure whether or not this beer has Brett, but it stands that if you like Brett, you’ll like this beer). I say give it a whirl, just be aware of what you’re getting into. Don’t let the pumpkins on the bottle fool you. :)
On a side note, I didn’t find out until I finished the bottle that this was a collaboration between Kim Jordan of New Belgium & Dick Cantwell of Elysian. It’s just one more reason to love the craft beer industry. It’s not the cut throat capitalism of nearly every other industry. In craft beer, people come together to make new and exciting things all the time. It makes me proud to be a small, small part of it. Cheers everybody!
Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!