Thursday, September 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 probably, with impunity, add a National Verbosity Day.
In case one overdid on National Drink Beer Day, whoever comes up with these things deemed Friday, September 29, as 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 that Thursday.
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, January 1 to December 31, and February 29, too, whenever it rolls around.
I’m certainty happy to tip one or two on September 28, as well as on April 7, which is the similarly named National Beer Day, though this one has some clear rationale behind it, that being the day in 1933 that the Cullen-Harrison Act was enacted into U.S. law. It wasn’t quite the official end to Prohibition; that was December 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 Volstead Act and paved the way for the sales of 3.2% Alcohol by Weight beers (about 4.0% in the now more commonly notated ABV—Alcohol by Volume) 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.”
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 September 16 and rolls on merrily until, as usual, the last hour of the first Saturday in October, the seventh 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 Wies’nmärzen 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 November 1. (National Pumpkin Day, by the way, is not on Halloween, but October 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.
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 Brewery 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 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 right now. (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.com 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 first-time mothers, 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.
Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville, Vermont 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 adds pumpkin, but just calls it Vermont Spruce Stout.
I visited the brewery recently. It’s six years in its new location, a large red building behind a tasting room 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 brewery roof power 100% of its electrical needs, making Rock Art the first brewery 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 on-going 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 on line. 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, vermontbrewers.com, to help visitors plan their own beer trips to the state. Nadeau said, “Summer is busiest, yes, and fall for the foliage. 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.
[This story first appeared, in different form, in the Oct. 4, 2017 issue of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Windham County, Vermont. Access the current edition of The Commons here.]