It's two days before "All Hallow's Eve" and what better brand of beer is there to review than Jolly Pumpkin out of Dexter, Michigan. Not only does their name make them an obvious choice, but their often eerie bottle art and unusual flavors make them a brewer that stretches comfort zones and pushes the boundaries for many a burgeoning craft beer drinker. Today's review will be for their "Calabaza Blanca" (translated: "White Pumpkin"), an artisan white ale allegedly "brewed in Belgium's biere blanche tradition," according to the label. Jolly Pumpkin tends to focus on open fermentation and barrel aging, so one comes to expect a bit of sour goodness when cracking any of their bottles. This particular bottle is from batch 853 and was bottled on 7-28-2011. Let's pour!
My first whif from the bottle elicited a "Wow, that's funky!" However, things settled much more pleasantly in the glass. Overall, it is a very floral brew with a distinct sour note behind it. The sour in the aroma evokes more sour green apples than it does the pungent orange peel used in its brewing, but that is not an unwelcome development. A very earthy coriander complements things nicely... or is that a coriander that blends well with an earthy hop variety? No matter, it all adds up to a classic gueuze type aroma. Ooh, and the orange blossom floral qualities open up even more as the beer warms. This is not a light aroma! It's got some oomph behind it.
Everything on the mark for the style. A bright, high clarity, sunshine yellow gleams in the glass and is capped by a noisy white head that fizzes quickly to a ring around the surface. OK, so normally one expects some haze in a witbier, but with how long this bottle has been again all that sediment on the bottom is going nowhere. The clarity and color seem awfully summery for this time of year, but I won't hold that against it.
Wow! The sour invades your personal space like an exuberant uncle at a family reunion. The blast of intense lemony lactic flavor dulls when held in the mouth, as does the angrily aggressive carbonation, and one is left with the earthy, slightly bitter fragments of the sour-splosion that just occurred. Unfortunately, little else takes place. The bitter could just as well be from lemon peel as it could orange and any coriander spiciness is wanting at best. The finish, of course, tends to emphasize the bitter a tad more than in the backbone of the beer, but that's about the only change. It is of course ridiculously dry, but that is aided gradually by the sour left in the mouth that inspires a helpful dose of saliva. Very tasty and not light on flavor, but extremely simple aside from the sour and earthy bitter.
The body in this beer is nearly nonexistent. I mean almost water, people. That is fixed a bit once the zealous carbonation has quickly died, but even then the beer can be called very light at best. Normally, a carbonation level this high would interfere tremendously with the texture of the beer, but with a beer this light it really can't do much damage. Any further negative effects of such high carbonation, even for a bottle conditioned beer, are lessened by the simple fact that the bubbles are so damned tiny. I have no idea how they did it, but they did. A mouthfeel like this and the accompanying low ABV of 4.8% lead me to think of this beer as more of a simple gueuze or a musty berliner weisse than any sort of white ale or witbier.
Overall Impression 7/10
This is well made, robust in both aroma and flavor, and definitely something for someone getting into sour beers to try. Its body, sour flavor, and high carbonation all keep it a refreshing beer, while the low ABV and light body mean you could probably drink quite a few if the flavor wasn't so intense. In fact, this brew is probably meant to be drank in quantity or popped like champagne, but its simplicity doesn't quite fit the bill as something to sit down and savor.
This is a tasty beer. Or rather a tasty sour champagne that is barely less dry than real champagne - and with less alcohol. This is a refreshing change of pace from big IPAs and some of the pumpkin/yam beers of the season, but probably not enough to keep me coming back. Ultimately though, it IS something that I would buy to show to my friends how different and unusual beers can be. It also may be something that a drinker heavily into lambics could branch out to try. Good work Jolly Pumpkin. You've made a refreshing beer that doesn't skimp on the intensity of its flavor, but now I'd like to request some complexity.