The Quest for Imperial Pumpkin Stout Beer

Years ago, I discovered the Missouri-based Crown Valley Brewing and Distillation’s beers. Their Imperial Pumpkin Smash became my all-time favorite pumpkin beer and I looked forwarded to grabbing a 4-pack every fall, especially for Halloween Night. It’s a mildly bitter, chocolate-pumpkin-tasting concoction with a weighty ABV close to 11%.

A picture of my favorite pumpkin beer the first time I tried it at an old local bar seven years ago.

But when the Beer Bug came, the beer went away. I heard rumors from retailers and local distributors that the brewery just couldn’t keep up with the demand for its beers due to manpower and supply chain issues. So, I haven’t been able to get it and even considered taking a road trip to Missouri to try to get some directly from the brewery. I still may do that some day, but I came up with another plan. Brew my own or something close to it.

I gained some experience with brewing from my experiment with wine making and I found some random person’s post about the suspected recipe for the beer on some random forum. I took the recipe to a local homebrew store for help and the truth was I lacked the experience, equipment, and ingredients to try to pull off the recipe. Instead, they sold me an Imperial Stout kit with all the ingredients and helped me pick out all the equipment I would need. My thinking was I could follow their Imperial Stout recipe and add in the assumed amount of pumpkin spice from the theorized formula to at least get an Imperial Pumpkin Stout.

The beer kit from La Homebrew.

Kit and equipment ready, I went to work. The first stage involves a lot of boiling and pouring in different ingredients at specific times. The ingredients mainly consists of some syrupy malt packs and hops. For me, the most difficult part was heating up 3 gallons of water to a boil on my electric stove. It took a lot longer than I thought it would. I was also worried a full pot might be too much weight for the burner, but it held up without collapsing. It’s also a little unnerving to have that much searing hot liquid going in my kitchen.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

After about an hour of boiling and adding ingredients, I made my small change to the provided recipe to shift my Imperial Stout into an Imperial Pumpkin Stout. That involved adding 5 grams of pumpkin spice with a couple minutes to go before I would need to rapidly cool the pot (the contents are the “wort” or as I like to think of it, yeast feed).

A dash of pumpkin spice in a coffee filter.

When I originally started this project, I purchased an 8 gallon pot but opted to return it and get a 4 gallon one, which I used. I was grateful I did because the next step calls for immersing the pot into an ice bath. Well, the 4 gallon pot mostly fills up my sink and my carefully prepared ice bath. I still ended up splashing water everywhere while desperately trying to cool the pot down with bagged ice and tap water. (Spoiler: I later learned from a friend that you can simply pour cold water into the water to help bring the temperature down and it’s much more effective than sitting the pot in ice water).

I don’t completely understand the necessity for the rapid cooling; I suspect it has to do with suspending the sugar in the wort for the yeast. But you also need to bring the temperature down below 100 degree Fahrenheit before you can toss the yeast into the wort to begin the fermentation process. Any hotter than that and you might kill off your yeast and hinder fermentation (alcohol production).

This is also the part in the process where you need to sample some of the beer to get an original gravity reading. This is basically a fancy way of measuring the density of the beer. I could be wrong about this, but the more alcohol the beer contains, the less dense it will be. So, you take this first reading and then compare it to the reading you take after the fermentation process to see how much alcohol the beer contains, e.g., the ABV. I botched this initial gravity reading by not letting the wort cool down to room temperature and for the bubbles to go away. Here’s the formula for reference: ABV = (OG – FG) * 131.25.

Erroneous Original Gravity reading.

There’s also a small step where you add extra water to get the carboy topped off and then rock it back and forth to help oxygenated it for the yeast.

My first fermenting beer wort, a.k.a., a beer bomb.

Along the way, I’m sterilizing everything and anything that might touch the wort with Star San Sanitizer, including the inside of the carboy, the rubber stopper, and air lock. The reason for this is to eliminate any wild yeast (bacteria) that might be alive on these surfaces and could start fermenting your beer and competing with your intended yeast. This can cause all sort of problems, the least of which being a sour taste.

You also have to cap the carboy to prevent further oxygen intrusion. Too much oxygen can also ruin the beer. The airlock in the picture above lets the carbon dioxide produced as the yeast feeds on the sugar and makes alcohol escape, while preventing oxygen from getting into the brew. So, it’s supposed to release the pressure building inside the carboy, but as I found out, when the fermentation gets too energetic, the air lock can’t keep up.

And then you get a beer bomb. I stored by carboy in my hall closet where it would be kept dark and at a reasonable temperature for the process, but the fermentation went so wild, so quickly, a build up of foam and gas blew the stopper and airlock off my carboy in my closet.

Semi-fermented, sticky beer sprayed on the walls and leaked across the floor and got on other items in the closet. I lost about a gallon of beer from the initial eruption and managed to get the carboy into the hall bathroom shower, where it continued to foam over into the tub. I quickly went to work cleaning and sterilizing my siphon, plastic tubing, and stopper/airlock and siphoned out an additional gallon or so of beer into the top so I would have enough headspace to keep the beer from foaming over again. And then sealed it with the airlock, hoping it would be all right but also closing the shower curtain just in case.

After a lot of cleanup, this was the beer that survived.

I eventually moved the beer back to the closet where it sat for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know how the beer would turn out given the additional oxygen exposure and the contamination risks. I was also gambling that the pumpkin spice I did add during the boil wouldn’t overpower the final product but would also be part of the flavor (I probably should have used more pumpkin spice in retrospect).

The fermentation process that began like a storm, slowly fizzled out and the yeast and other solid ingredients in the wort began to settle into a sludge on the bottom of the carboy.

Orta inspecting the bottling process.

This is one of the main reasons you siphon the beer from the carboy into the bottling bucket with sanitized equipment so you can filter out this gunk.

The dead yeast and other ingredients that settle out of the beer.

I finally got to taste the flat version of the beer before attempting to bottle it. I was surprised how well it did turn out. It wasn’t the best Imperial Pumpkin Stout I’ve ever tasted but it was pretty good. I tossed in the provided pack of bottling sugar, mixed it into the beer, and went through the tedious process of sanitizing and filling 40 or so beer bottles and then capping each one. It also reduces the oxygen exposure.

My first bottled homemade beer.

I learned that I should let the beer age in the bottles instead of the carboy to allow the flavor to mature and more of the sediment to drop out into the bottles and that’s what I did. This is also when a new small fermentation process begins in the bottles, requiring metal caps to hold back the pressure, to give the beer its carbonization. I let my beer sit for almost two months on the lead up to Halloween. But I honestly didn’t notice much of a difference as I sampled a bottle or two or three during the aging process.

30 bottles of beer on the wall…

I didn’t forget to take that final gravity reading before the bottling. It was still pretty bubbly but it was at least at room temperature. If you run both numbers through the ABV formula, the result is nonsensical. But I found that if I used the Original Gravity number on the recipe box and my second reading, my ABV stood within the recipe’s specified range, about 8.6%. I called it a win and the final product tasted like a beer in that range.

Final gravity reading. Much more accurate than the first.

I still have about half a dozen bottles left. It’s surprising just how many bottles you can fill and cap from just a few gallons. It’s cost effective in the long run if you drink beer on the regular and eat the upfront costs of purchasing the equipment.

I’d compare the process to a mix of lab experiment, cooking, and gardening. It’s not hard to do but may seem overwhelming until you go through the process. I totally recommend using OxyClean powder to clean your carboy and bottles. It works great and doesn’t linger with endless suds like dishwasher detergent. Star San Sanitizer is expensive but it’s amazing for this kind of stuff. A couple of ounces can make five gallons of sanitizing solution.

I didn’t get anywhere near recreating Crown Valley’s beer, but what I did brew scratched an itch and was a fun experience. I just finished brewing a Witbier and it’s fermenting in my hall closet right now. But this time I opted for a blow off tube setup instead of the airlock. Any overflow will just wind up in a plastic gallon bottle. So, no explosions so far.

Ran and Finished the Louisiana Marathon

After months of training, I got to take my shot at the full 26.2 miles of the Louisiana Marathon and I finished it.

My first marathon, it was one of the hardest physical things I had ever done before in my life. Those last six miles were brutal, breaking down into longer and longer periods of walking and shorter and shorter periods of running. My legs-my entire body-ached, but not so bad I couldn’t move. Hell, I even ran up that god-forsaken overpass in the last couple of miles. I just felt like I ran out of gas, literally like a combustion engine trying to run on fuel fumes.

I think a few things contributed to this. First, I tried running a slightly faster pace than what I trained for, which is always a mistake, but I kept it up for 18 miles or so. I finished my training schedule more than a month early (You can read about that here.). While I did my best to maintain my conditioning, the weather, the holiday food and booze, and family concerns worked against me. And the race day temperature started in the mid-60s and got into the low 70s with some humidity, so it was significantly warmer than it had been for any of my long runs.

I also knew some friends and coworkers that ran into their own problems. One fell down early in the marathon and scraped up her hands and knees pretty badly. Another pulled a muscle around mile 19, but had been running at a pace fast enough that he had time to limp the rest of the way home before the sweep bus came along.

So, my finish time wasn’t great, 5:20, but it was still a finish time. And I have the medal to prove it. After running that thing, just the accomplishment of doing it is enough for me (for now).

Louisiana Marathon 2017 medal, a cypress shoe.

Covered in body salt (and probably stinking terribly), I made it to the victory party with plenty of time to spare. There was a variety of food from several different vendors. Most of it was just free and didn’t require using one of the six stamps on my event bracelet. The Abita Brewing Company was out there with its trucks serving up its most popular beers. I had a Purple Haze, but there was also the Amber and The Boot – Louisiana Exclusive. It’s all pretty good beer, but after chugging a gallon mixture of water and powerade for the last 5 hours, my stomach wasn’t quite ready for beer or food.

Still, I had what I could stand out of principle, at least until I got back to my car and stopped at Jack in the Box on my way home. Eating an Ultimate Cheeseburger meal has become my post-marathon and half-marathon tradition it seems.

Post-marathon #Abita Purple Haze and a bowl of jambalaya, tasted like bitter, awful, God I felt like I was going to die victory, but victory nonetheless.

I wish I had my own pictures of the course itself, but I didn’t want to fumble with my phone while I was concentrating on staying with the pace team. The first half is great, aside from some rough roads. It goes from downtown Baton Rouge to Tiger Stadium on LSU’s campus by way of the streets around the LSU/Baton Rouge Lakes. This is obviously a matter of (completely biased, damn those last 10 miles!!!) opinion, but the second half of the route was just kind of plain. You were running through neighborhoods. I had more than my fill of that during my training. It was psychologically disheartening in a way. Still, there were tons of spectators and police officers and volunteers along the either leg to cheer you on.

People dressed in Batman and Super Troopers costumes shouted for us to keep going. Others offered us snacks and drinks and funny signs reading things like, “I don’t run marathons. I watch them on Netflix.” And the pace guy I ran most of the race with, as well as most of the runners, waved to and thanked each of the officers we passed. It was a good show of solidarity after such a rough year for the state.

With the marathon over and the training (thankfully) behind me, I’m turning my focus back to writing now. But really, writing a new book is just another kind of marathon. That’s depressing to think about right now, so I’m just going to stop.

If you’re curious, you can view the 2017 Louisiana Marathon results here.

#thelamarathon #running

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