Beer review: Jolly Pumpkin Maracaibo Especial Belgian-style strong brown ale

Michigan brewery, Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales, has nothing to do with seasonal gourd beers and everything to do with open air fermentation, exotic French and Belgian yeast strains, oak barrel aging, and bottle conditioning. All their beers are funky, spicy, and sour, packed full of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus goodness.

Maracaibo Especial is a 7.5% ABV Belgian inspired brown ale made from all natural ingredients — barley, wheat, hops, yeast, and water; brewed with cacao and spiced with cinnamon and orange peel. After fermentation, the brew matures in oak barrels for several months, and after bottling, it goes in the cellar for a few more months. The process by which it’s crafted is drastically different from the rapid, highly mechanized assembly line production of mainstream domestic; this type of beer simply has more soul.

All of Jolly Pumpkin’s beers are marked with a batch or blend number. Every batch and blend is a little different, and the labeling system makes it easier to identify an example that fits your personal taste, track down a particular batch/blend, or establish a brewing date. This particular bottle from Batch 349 was obtained at Leukens in Dunedin. But I have also seen them at Whole Foods. Since this is an older bottle from November 2008, as soon as the cap came off, it oozed khaki foam like a sudsy volcano. This is normal, so be prepared. Wrap a few paper towels around the bottle’s neck, like a funnel, and let it sit for about ten minutes. This mellow out period is actually beneficial in several ways. These beers taste best around 60 degrees, after the flavors have had time to develop, any yeast stirred up by uncapping has resettled, and the active carbonation from bottle conditioning has subsided.

It should be poured into a tulip or snifter, at a 45 degree angle, gently enough to leave the yeast in the bottle. In the glass, it looks like a lighter bodied version of an English Brown Ale, slightly cloudy with a topcoat of pinhead sized bubbles that hang around until the last sips.

The farmhouse funk of Brettanomyces yeast wafts from the glass, with mildly detectable traces of citrus, cedar, and cinnamon.

The flavor isn’t sour like a lemon or vinegar, and it’s not sweet sour like Sour Patch Kids or Sweet Tarts. It’s more like sourdough graham crackers with a slightly dusty Belgian chocolate funkiness that comes out in the finish.

Curious to try the beer but think it might be too much for you? Try pairing it with a slice of key lime pie. The citric tartness will make the brew seem less sour, and the pie crust will mesh well with the earthy graham cracker essence of Brett yeast.

Although some are noted for possessing unbalanced yeast flavor characteristics, I adore all of the Jolly Pumpkin beers. They cellar wonderfully, increasing in complexity with age - ES Bam, Madrugada Obscura, and La Roja are particularly exquisite. To me these beers are so complex, with such unusual flavors; drinking one is like going someplace exotic.