Food and Drink

Why Pumpkin Isn't the Only Fall Food For Delicious Beer

From North Carolina sweet potatoes to Missouri beets to New York carrots.

Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

“Carver returns!” reads a bold red and white heading at the center of Fullsteam Brewery‘s website. The Durham, North Carolina brewery is right to give such prominent placement to its latest release-between multiple U.S. Beer Open medals and a steadfast consumer following, the sweet potato Vienna Lager has become one of its most celebrated beers. And in an era where blustery October weather has become synonymous with all things pumpkin spice, Carver, a malty lager brewed with real, unseasoned sweet potatoes, is one fall favourite you might not expect.

“I call that the tilt of the head, like when a dog tilts their head slightly, kind of like huh?” says Fullsteam CEO Sean Lilly Wilson, describing some newcomers’ puzzled reactions to Carver. “From the get-go, the whole idea was to make a good beer from sweet potatoes instead of a novelty. There are a lot of pumpkin beers out there, and some of them are pretty good, but plenty aren’t even made with real pumpkins. Part of the original genius was to not have any of those spices, let it be a lager, and let the natural nuances of the sweet potatoes carry the day.”

A trip down any half-decent American beer aisle will assure you that the pumpkin spice craze is far from over. Yet each year, more and more craft brewers are shying away from the expected sugary sweet, nutmeg-laced flavour profile and turning to alternative fall vegetables. This shift oftentimes results in a seasonal product that actually fits more organically into their roster. And for an outspokenly farm-to-pint brewery like Fullsteam, the decision to pour more than 200 pounds of sweet potatoes into Carver’s mash was truly a no-brainer.

“We try to use a fair amount of local agriculture and we keep tabs on what’s coming out of the fields when,” says Erik Myers, Fullsteam’s director of brewing operations. Pumpkins aren’t ready until later in the year and North Carolina is the number one source of sweet potatoes in the U.S. (who knew!), so it’s an easy crop to come by. “Everything comes from this really great company called Yamco. They make what’s essentially an aseptic sweet potato slurry for us so we don’t have to worry about anything else being introduced into the recipe.”

From North Carolina sweet potatoes to Missouri beets, New York carrots, and mushrooms foraged just outside Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, making good use of available agriculture plays a central role in the development of many non-pumpkin vegetable beers. As Black Hog Brewing head brewer Tyler Jones explains, that symbiotic relationship dates back to the very birth of American brewing.

“The reason pumpkin beers even exist is because back in the day, brewers were having to pay taxes on the malted barley they were getting from England,” Jones explains. “They were like, ‘How do I get more beer out of what’s growing around me? Let’s take these local vegetables, use the enzymes to convert the starch into fermentable sugars, and make beer with them.'”

With this history as inspiration, Jones sought out neighbouring farms in Southwestern Connecticut to fuel last year’s fall seasonal. The end result? A tongue-tingling homage to autumnal beers of yore dubbed Delicata Squash Saison.

“We had a farmer here, DeFrancesco Farm, that was growing delicata squash and they have really high sugar content, which is great for brewing,” he continues. “We’ll come and fill up the back of my truck with them, bring them out back, hose them down to get all the dirt off, cut them up, and throw them right in. Using that much of the gourd, you get a lot of complex fermentable and unfermentable sugars that help add body.”

Sticking to their roots, so to speak, and brewing a good, honest beer showcasing area resources was important to Jones and the rest of the Black Hog crew. But so was attracting customers, especially those customers looking forward to downing pints of liquid pie as soon as the leaves turned orange. So Jones and his team used a Saison yeast with spicy characteristics, threw in some cinnamon and white peppercorns, and a bolder flavour was born.

Poured into a glass, the 2020 limited-batch brew’s frothy white head exudes a bouquet of enticing aromas. And while they didn’t bring it back this year, opting instead to jump aboard the pastry train via a double-threat of Pumpkin Spice Latte Coffee Milk Stout and Churro Donut Lager made in collaboration with local bakeshop Grounds Donut House, the squash-laden saison of yore is fondly remembered by patrons and staffers alike. “It [gave] our beertenders an opportunity to interact with our guests and educate them about what pumpkin beer used to be,” Jones notes.

Back in North Carolina, Myers applies a similar logic to Carver. Instead of beefing up the spicy side of things, though, they went with a more delicate, crisp lager yeast alongside a robust malt bill designed to further enhance some of the tuberous root’s more subtle attributes.

“Malt can bring in so many characteristics whether they’re really there or not, like chocolate or coffee,” he says. “When they play together, they heighten the base rather than relying on the sweet potatoes alone or dumping on the spices. You’re sort of building the beer to support the sweet potato, and then the sweet potato brings all kinds of colour into it and makes it really beautiful.”

Despite these obvious successes, these brewers can all agree that making beer with freshly harvested and minimally processed vegetables is a real labour of love. “I will say that I like being the director on this one because, man, it’s a mess,” laughs Fullsteam’s Myers. “Dumping 500 pounds of sweet potato into the mash tun? My brewers are not always happy when that’s going on, but it sure makes a delicious beer.”

Consider sidestepping the boozy PSL this season and try one of these ultra-tasty, veggie-packed sippers instead.

Tennessee Brew Works
Tennessee Brew Works
Tennessee Brew Works

Country Roots from Tennessee Brew Works

Nashville, Tennessee
Tapping into the autumnal bounty harvested by Delvin Farms in nearby College Grove, Tennessee, this dark and savoury stout gets its profound creaminess from a hefty addition of cured and roasted sweet potatoes. A rich malt backbone provides structure, while coffee, dark chocolate, and smoky caramel notes abound. And at just 5.5% ABV, this is one fireside sipper you can responsibly quaff all night long.

Ermahgourd Butternut Squash Ale from Tox Brewing Co.

New London, Connecticut
Ripe and juicy butternut squash and traditional pumpkin pie spice join forces inside this Connecticut craft operation’s surprisingly crisp fall release. Pleasantly orange in colour and subtle on the nose, the veggie-loaded ale is fermented with Kveik yeast, an ancient Norwegian farmhouse strain prized for its earthy edge and fresh hay-meets-lemon balm aroma.

Turnip the Beets from Bull & Bush Brewery

Denver, Colorado
Turnips and beets? This Colorado daredevil struck gold with the unlikely autumnal combination, producing a widely celebrated Belgian-style Tripel. The annually released 10% ABV heavy-hitter is brewed with a boatload of freshly harvested root vegetables, before spending some quality time mellowing out in spent Oloroso Sherry barrels delivered straight from Spain. The result is a complex, wine-like creation that pairs nicely with blustery late-fall weather.

Sweet Potato Lager from Fullsteam Brewery Carver

Durham, North Carolina
A whole boatload of local sweet potatoes plus toasty German lager malt and a fortifying dose of Crystal and Magnum hops for balance is all it takes to make this Fullsteam award-winner. And at 5.2% ABV, this is one seasonal pick you can safely crush all day long (AKA pairs well with Sunday football and comfy pants).

Beet Weiss from Crane Brewing

Raytown, Missouri 
Loads of vitamin-rich beets provide a handsome, distinctly piquant yet resoundingly grounded base for this Missouri craft outpost’s puckery German-style sour. Pouring ruby red with a vibrant white head, it’s also pretty as a prayer book and sweet as an apple on Christmas day (or something like that).

Carrot Bucket from The FarmHouse Brewery

Owego, New York
Western New York’s Finger Lakes region is rife with creative, eco-minded wineries, distilleries, cideries, and breweries, and this Tioga County operation is no exception. The majority of their ingredients, from barley to hops, are New York-born and -bred and they even house their own maltery onsite. This farm-fresh harvest brew, with its sunny tangerine sheen, lacy foam cap, bright grassy aroma, and semi-dry biscuity finish, brilliantly harnesses the humble taproot’s finest qualities.

Chanterelle Biere de Garde from Scratch Brewing Company

Ava, Illinois
To call this Southern Illinois microbrewery’s vast and ultra-creative fleet hyperlocal would be a grave understatement. The malt hails from family-run Sugar Creek Malt in nearby Boone County, Indiana, the hops were raised and harvested instate, and the chanterelle mushrooms that give the crisp and quaffable Belgian stunner its curiously fruity edge were forested right there on the property.

Butternut the Hutt from North Fork Brewing Co.

Riverhead, New York
Butternut squash from Long Island’s own Schmitt’s Farm gets the royal treatment in this lauded seasonal release, hand-roasted by North Fork’s skillful brewers for optimal caramelization and a warm, roasty nose. A moderate dusting of spices and a substantial malt backbone finishes the job.

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. Hot in the daytime, she ain’t buying no pumpkin pie, brew the sweet potato kind, kick it up a notch-no recipe involved, it’s all memorized. Follow her at @mereditto.

Food and Drink

Why Makrut Lime Makes a Star Ingredient in Cocktails

The Southeast Asian citrus is intensely aromatic and pairs with rum, gin, tequila, and more.

Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks
Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks
Photo courtesy of Fish Cheeks

I grew up with a makrut lime tree in my backyard, admiring the double leaves and dimpled citrus fruit that frequently made their way into our family dinners. Makrut limes, which are sometimes referred to kaffir limes (although the term is controversial and has been widely retired), are native to Southeast Asia, but somehow my mom willed a tree to grow in our Southern California home with great success.

To me, makrut meant savoury Thai food: steamed fish curry wrapped in banana leaves and sprinkled with chiffonade makrut, simmering tom kha gai with floating bits of the hand-torn citrus leaves, and glistening green curry accentuated by the plant’s aroma.

But to others, makrut is an ideal ingredient in cocktails and other drinks. Such is the case for Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant in Manhattan known for its seafood dishes and eclectic, complementary cocktail menu. Beverage director Beau Fontano knew he had to include makrut in his creations, especially because the ingredient is so prominent on the food menu. Makrut lime finds its way in several drinks, most notably as a garnish atop the Thank You Kha, a riff on the acidic coconut stew tom kha gai, and the Manao Mao, a rum-based drink that uses makrut lime bitters.

“I don’t love using the word tiki, but if you think of those tiki rum cocktails, makrut definitely works well in those,” Fontano says. “But I also love it in martinis-there’s something really clean about it. And with makrut lime, if you’re just using the leaves, you can do a lot of rapid infusions.”

Fontano only uses the leaves, because the rinds and juice of makrut limes are famously bitter. “Regular lime has a little bit more sugar content, so that’s why it’s much more approachable in cocktails. Makrut limes tend to be more dry,” he explains. “But when you use the leaves in cocktails, you just smack it to wake it up a little bit and it gets that nice citrusy, refreshing aroma which is really fun.”

The leaves are cut fresh, so each drink has the scent of makrut lime leaves wafting off of them. “I’m sure at one point I will get around to it and try to figure out how to use the juice,” he laughs.

Further north at Paper Tiger in Portland, Maine, makrut lime leaves are also prevalent in a cocktail called Something Scandalous, a tequila-based drink intended to be, in the words of bartender Nick Reevy, “crushed easily.”

Paper Tiger
Paper Tiger
Paper Tiger

“I went with tequila, specifically, because in Maine it’s 80 degrees and humid pretty much all summer,” Reevy explains. “So I made something you kick back easily. Agave has a really nice softness that elevates the makrut lime, and the main flavour in that drink is the Thai basil.”

The drink is an alluring shade of green and is rounded out by cinnamon syrup and falernum. “Makrut lime is really herbal and bright in a way no other citrus is,” Reevy adds. “It’s interchangeable with other limes, but it just adds this whole other depth of flavour.”Makrut lime has even made its way into hard seltzer, albeit a limited edition drop from Lunar. Founder Kevin Wong knew he wanted to add another citrus drink to his rotation as he witnessed the successes of hard lemonades, but already had a yuzu iteration. Makrut lime seemed like a natural follow-up.

Photo courtesy of Lunar
Photo courtesy of Lunar
Photo courtesy of Lunar

“It has a very intense citrus fragrance, almost perfumey or soapy,” Wong ponders. “Like I could see Le Labo putting out a makrut lime fragrance. It has such a commanding presence and body.”

To tamper down some of the boldness of the makrut lime, the hard seltzer uses makrut lime leaf extract, lime juice, and cane sugar. The aromatics of the lime are present without too much bitterness; instead, the seltzer is grassy, acidic, and dry. Wong recommends pairing the can with spicy foods, especially Szechuan dry pot.

The makrut lime seltzer is currently sold out, and Wong is unsure whether or not another batch is in the works. “I feel like makrut lime is the greatest secret unknown to the Western world,” he says. “It’s in medicine, candy, herbal drinks, cosmetics and aromatherapy. I think we did the seltzer too early, and I don’t know if the world is ready for us to bring it back yet. Maybe in a couple of years.”

But judging by the growing popularity of makrut lime in beverage menus, the comeback might be sooner than he expects.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

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