Friday, October 19, 2012

Jacques Au Lantern (Evolution Craft Brewing Company)

I was prepared to skewer ex-Delaware (now Salisbury, Md. based) Evolution Craft Brewing Company's Jacques Au Lantern in the context of a dour critique of pumpkin beers in general. Turns out, I can't quite do that. Details in a minute, but first the background.

Every fall, the beer market is flooded with pumpkin beers from scores of breweries. Now, I am as susceptible to the sensory charms of autumn as the next guy -- a bracing nip in the morning air, the first wisp of chimney smoke, the crunch of fallen leaves. And, like it or not, pumpkin beers have become a ubiquitous part of the season. But most of them I've tried, I have a hard time finishing a single bottle, let alone a six-pack. I find breweries tend to push the spice gimmick with a heavy hand, packing every bottle with more cinnamon, clove, and allspice (and often more sweetness) than the beer inside it can support.

I blogged last fall about Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale being a notable exception to this tendency. "The thing that Dogfish Head seems to have nailed better than the other pumpkin beer purveyors is simple: restraint," I wrote. "The flavor of the additives combines with the flavor of the beer, but never takes the foreground. The result is the sense of drinking a well-brewed ale with a seasonal angle, not drinking a fizzy vehicle for liquified pumpkin pie."

Jacques Au Lantern also succeeds as a pumpkin beer that will not offend a beer lover's palate, but for slightly different reasons.

Initially, my hopes remained modest, as I poured the orange-amber liquid into my glass and was met with a fairly perfunctory, pale, fizzy head that quickly dissipated to a thin film. The aroma did not sway me either, striking me at first as slightly cider-y, then yielding to a powdery, Pez-like note of clove.

The flavor was more impressive. In that all-important first sip, I was relieved to find a level of spiciness within the scope of reason. As I sipped more and began to think about the foundation of the brew, the cleverness of its formulation began to reveal itself. Its texture first made me guess this must be a wheat beer, but as I pondered the contribution of yeast, I realized it really exhibited the characteristic spiciness of a Belgian-style ale. (It was in the same moment that the deeper meaning of punny name "Jacques Au Lantern" hit me like a ton of bricks. A dubbel entendre?)

What Evolution has done here is to create an ale at the natural intersection between Belgian yeast flavors and pumpkin pie spice flavors, and it actually works. I commend them for taking this gastronomical approach to their fall seasonal, rather than just chucking the spice rack into a kettle of amber ale as so many breweries appear to do.

It's nice to find another pumpkin beer that I would consider drinking more than one of, but I still find myself much more excited about the arrival of pumpkin-free fall seasonals like Tröegs Brewing Company's rich, roasty Dead Reckoning Porter and New Belgium Brewing Company's brilliantly balanced Red Hoptober.

Featured beer:
Jacques Au Lantern

Honorable mentions:
Punkin Ale
Dead Reckoning Porter
Red Hoptober

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