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Squashing the Pumpkin

A new Richmond-brewed beer for the season takes an unexpected -- and southern -- turn.

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Pumpkin is hot. People love it -- or want it vaporized out of existence, depending on who’s doing the talking. Maybe it’s the ubiquity of pumpkin as an ingredient this year -- pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin bagels and of course, the granddaddy of the craze, pumpkin lattes -- that arouses such strong feelings. It’s everywhere.

Mike Hiller of Strangeways Brewing, Jason Alley of Pasture and Comfort, and Travis Milton of Comfort wanted to collaborate on a fall brew, but pumpkin was too obvious. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t a pie slice,” Alley says.

“I had the idea of doing a Southern beer, and I knew I wanted to work with Jason Alley, especially,” Hiller says. “Once I learned more about the farm-to-table cuisine around here, the wheels started turning.”

All of the ingredients are from the South, pretty much. “We wanted to pound as much Southern heirloom stuff in there as we could,” Alley says. The malted heirloom grains are from Asheville, N.C., the hops are from Huguenot Hops in Midlothian and the yeast is from southern Bavaria (at least it’s the south of Germany, OK?). It’s then stored in bourbon barrels from Fairfax County’s A. Smith Bowman Distillery.

The special ingredient is Milton’s Candy Roaster squash, a big winter squash grown on Milton’s Southwestern Virginia family farm for generations. It recently was added to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a project to catalog and help save little-known vegetables, fruits, cheeses, animal breeds and more that are in danger of extinction.

“The first recorded appearance of the Candy Roaster was in 1869 in the Charlotte Observer,” Milton says. “It’s nutty and sweet, and the longer it stays on the vine, the sweeter it gets.”

“I pitched the idea of using it to Jason and Mike,” he says: “Why not do something Appalachian?”

“We wanted to do something autumnal,” Alley says. “Instead of pumpkin, we went for something squash-y.”

“It has a delicate flavor,” Hiller says, "a flavor that works with the beer, not something that bangs you over the head.” The squash is roasted to caramelize its sugars and is added straight to the mash. The rest of the beer-making process is straightforward. The lager-like brew will be light and low in alcohol. The release date is planned for November.

“I’ve always wanted to brew a beer that somehow captures Southern cuisine,” Hiller says.

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