Jolly Pumpkin beer started flowing from taps at The J. Clyde a few weeks ago, but the effort to bring their beer to Birmingham started about a year ago when a friend of mine (who prefers to remain nameless) contacted Ron Jeffries, their brewmaster. My friend, who I’ll refer to as JW, has long been a Jolly Pumpkin devotee.
Acknowledging that the container limit would almost completely bar him from selling anything in Alabama, Jeffries told JW that he made a small amount of draft beer. JW passed this information along to J. Clyde owner Jerry Hartley and to a friend of his at Birmingham Beverage, a beer distributor, letting them know how much he’d like to see Jolly Pumpkin beer in Alabama.
That launched a long process of working out the distribution contract and figuring out the complicated logistics of shipping. The shipment would be Jolly Pumpkin’s largest draft distribution outside their home state of Michigan. However, for Birmingham Beverage, it was a very small volume of beer to obtain from one supplier.
Once all of the details were worked out, the first pallet of kegs (consisting of three different Jolly Pumpkin beers) hit the warehouse in Birmingham back in March, and Jerry elected to wait and tap all three on the third anniversary of the J. Clyde on April 13. The first three Jolly Pumpkin beers served in Alabama were Bam Bičre, Bam Noire and Oro de Calabaza. Bam Bičre is a light golden saison. Bam Noire is a dark brown saison. And Oro de Calabaza is a Belgian strong golden ale.
While all of Jolly Pumpkin’s beers are distinct from one another, they are all set apart as a group from other beers brewed in America by two rare processes used in their production: open fermentation and oak maturation.
Fermentation in open vessels is something I recently mentioned in this column when I was writing about the sour lambics of Belgium. While the lambic brewers of Belgium allow wild yeast and bacteria floating in the air to inoculate the beer and do the fermenation, Jolly Pumpkin adds controlled yeast cultures. They believe the open fermentation process allows for the “fullest flavor development” of their ales. It also aids in harvesting the yeast for re-pitching into future batches.
While the barrel aging of beer has become increasingly popular with American craft brewers over the last few years, Jolly Pumpkin is the only American brewery I’m familiar with that matures every single one of their beers in oak. But none of their beers have overbearing oaky flavors. Instead, the oak contributes very subtle flavors and also provides a hospitable environment for wild yeasts to impart funky, tart and sour flavors to the beer.
And it is the constant thread of funk, tartness and/or sourness running through all of Jolly Pumpkin’s beers that makes Jolly Pumpkin such an exceptional brewery. Although based in Dexter, Mich., they don’t brew many styles common to their American craft-brewing brethren—no American pale ale, no IPA, no robust porter. Instead, their lineup features Belgian-inspired styles, such as Flanders red ale, Bier de Mars and saison. And in most cases, bacteria and/or Brettanomyces are used to create unusual flavors not found in most beers.
Bam Bičre and Bam Noire are two sides of the same coin, one being a light saison and the other a dark saison. Both have less than 4.5 percent ABV, which makes them perfect session beers. But they have more depth and complexity than many beers with twice the alcohol. The Bičre is light and refreshing, with lots of spiciness from the yeast, a hint of tartness and very subtle floral and citrus notes from dry-hopping. The Noire has some of the same traits at its core, but the dark malts used introduce some dark fruit flavors and a little caramel nuttiness.
Oro de Calabaza is big and bold, with an 8-percent ABV. Beer Advocate lists it as a biere de garde, but Jolly Pumpkin labels it a Belgian strong golden. That’s a catch-all style for any light-colored, high-alcohol beer fermented with Belgian yeast. According to traditional style guidelines, biere de gardes should not be tart and must actually be lagered. Oro de Calabaza is indeed tart and not lagered, so it would seem to be misclassified on the rating website. It has many layers of complexity and must be sipped slowly and allowed to warm to appreciate it.
Look for these and more Jolly Pumpkin offerings to rotate through The J. Clyde over time. You won’t be able to find bottles anywhere (yet) because they are all packaged in 750 ml bottles, just like wine.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org