Penciling in some beer on the calendar

Penciling in some beer on the calendar

Oktoberfest, pumpkin spice, and the flavors of the fall

WILLIAMSVILLE — Thursday, Sept. 28 was National Drink Beer Day. Or so I was informed via a cornucopia of social media messages. It was also National Poetry Day, which suggested that by late evening we could have probably, with impunity, added a National Verbosity Day.

In case one overdid on National Drink Beer Day, whoever comes up with these things deemed Friday, Sept. 29 National Coffee Day, which is some kind of perfection. Several national coffee-and-doughnut chains gave away free coffee that day, but I sure didn't hear about anyone giving out free beer the day before.

I actually made a minor attempt to see who came up with National Drink Beer Day but found little to go on. It doesn't appear to be sponsored by anyone, yet it's clearly now self-perpetuating on social media. On my own social media I called it a matter of great redundancy, since every day is Drink Beer Day to me - Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, and Feb. 29, too, whenever it rolls around.

I'm certainty happy to tip one or two on Sept. 28, as well as on April 7, the similarly named National Beer Day.

This one has some clear rationale behind it.

On that day in 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect. It wasn't quite the official end to Prohibition; that was Dec. 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, resulting in another let's-have-one celebration called Repeal Day.

But the Cullen-Harrison Act did redefine what was considered an intoxicating beverage under the law and paved the way for the sales of 3.2% alcohol by weight beers (about 4.0% in the now more commonly notated alcohol by volume, or ABV) before the end of Prohibition.

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act into law, he famously remarked, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

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I have no argument with any of these days. It just seems to me that the lovely and varied styles and flavors of beer are motivation enough to drink it. But what kind of beer one is drinking can certainly be influenced by the calendar.

On this year's German calendar, Oktoberfest began on Sept. 16 and rolls on merrily until, as usual, the last hour of the first Saturday in October, the 7th this year. There is always some confusion about this in the U.S., when most think Oktoberfest lasts through the month of October.

Well, there's certainly no harm in drinking Oktoberfest-style beers throughout the month.

At this autumnal time of the year, it's just the thing to crack open a nice, malty amber-to-darkish lager of moderate strength (about 5% to 7% ABV), variously called Oktoberfests, Vienna-style, Märzen, or Wiesn-Märzen beers. But travel to Munich for Oktoberfest these days, and you're more likely to be throwing back Fest beers, lighter in color, although still strong enough to eventually make you stand up on a table to bellow German drinking songs.

The great tradition of Oktoberfest beers has been somewhat challenged in recent years, at least in the U.S., by the increasing popularity of pumpkin beers.

Treatises, or at least articles in the likes of The Atlantic, have been written about the rise of pumpkin beers in the last decade or so, and the great divide between those who love them and those who despise them, with few in the middle ground. They've become as ubiquitous as holiday ales, often on shelves as early as August, and vanishing along with the candy corn by Nov. 1. (National Pumpkin Day, by the way, is not on Halloween, but Oct. 26.)

Pumpkin beers are an allusive style - generally ales and usually less about the pumpkin and more about your typical pumpkin-pie spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice. They're about the same as you can expect from a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, which came along in 2003.

Though there was no actual pumpkin in the Pumpkin Spice Latte until 2015, Starbucks may have played no small part in fomenting the craze for pumpkin-spice flavor and aroma in everything from coffee and beer to candles and Cheerios.

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I'm no big fan of pumpkin beers. I'd just as soon have the pie. But I'll drink a couple each year, and I'm always amused by Pumking Imperial Ale from Southern Tier Brewing Co. of western New York, a whopping 8.6% ABV brew that is so over the top with sweetness it suggests pumpkin pie with the whipped cream.

Statistics from the Brewers Association suggest that sales for pumpkin beers have declined somewhat in the last two years, and this season I've seen far more Oktoberfest-style beers in Vermont than, say, the Pumpkin Ale from Rutland's Hop'n Moose Brewing Company that I'm polishing off as I write. (It's a middle-of-the-road brew as far as the spicing goes - enough to do the job, but not overwhelming.)

But this isn't stopping the RateMyPumpkins gals. Each year, starting in 2012, Nicola Chamberlain and Alexandra Dietrich of Boston would review 61 pumpkin beers in 61 days (ending on Halloween, naturally) on Twitter, Facebook, and their website, They took a hiatus last year as each became a first-time mother, but they're back with a new weekly six-pack of pumpkin beers format. Their perseverance is formidable.

High marks, too, to Meadowlark Brewing of Sidney, Montana, for finding a way to bridge the divide. I haven't tried the beer, but the concept is brilliant: a 6.6% ABV Oktoberfest-style lager brewed with butternut squash, called Squashtoberfest.

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Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville, Vt., used to make an 8% ABV Pumpkin Imperial Spruce Stout, but owner and brewer Matt Nadeau used actual pumpkin mainly for its sugars, adding no spicing whatsoever. This puzzled some cranks who took to social media to criticize the beer for its lack of spicing. Others discerned spicing that wasn't there. Anyway, Nadeau still makes the same beer from time to time, still adding pumpkin, but he just calls it Vermont Spruce Stout.

I visited the brewery last week. It's six years in its new location, a large red building right off Route 100. Nadeau and his wife, Renee, who began the operation on a shoestring in 1997, have come a long way.

Matt said, “We bought all sorts of birthday presents for the brewery on its 20th birthday - we went solar, and a brand new state of the art Krones canning line is coming from Germany later this fall. There's only one like it in Portland, Maine, one in Philadelphia, and now there will be one in Morrisville.”

The 200 solar panels on the roof power 100 percent of the brewery's electrical needs, making Rock Art the first in the country to go completely solar, Nadeau believes. With a 12- to 13-year payback for the system, he obviously has faith in the ongoing health of the Vermont craft beer business.

An 18-year member of the Vermont Brewers Association board of directors, Nadeau said, “The Vermont beer business is cranking. There's still room for expansion, and I believe there are two or three new breweries ready to go online. Our big issue is making sure everyone is making quality beer. Can't ruin the Vermont reputation with inferior beer.”

What's to be done if someone is making inferior beer?

With classic Vermont terseness, Nadeau said, “Give 'em some pointers. If people are getting bad beer they're not as likely to come to Vermont, and beer tourism is big. The Association did a study, and we're rivaling the ski areas for tourism.”

The Association recently redid its website,, to help visitors plan their own beer trips to the state.

“Summer is busiest, yes, and fall for the foliage,” Nadeau said. “But in stick season people are still coming; in ski season, still coming; in mud season, still coming. It's year-round.”

Which only proves my thesis.

Just the same, I grabbed a growler of Rock Art's 5% ABV Black Currant Saison, brought it home, and polished it off on National Drink Beer Day.

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