"Push past the limits of sense and sensibilities, from the known into the unknown. Fall way off the map, and here there be monsters."
Most folks who stumble upon beers from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in their local liquor store don't know what they're looking at. The natural assumption is that it's pumpkin beer, but Jolly Pumpkin is actually the name of the Dexter, Mich. brewery, not an ingredient in the brew. The name, according to brewer Ron Jeffries, came about when he and his wife brainstormed what to call their company on an unseasonably warm March day. The name "Jolly Pumpkin" had no specific meaning but also made them the happiest
"It encompassed everything we wanted to express about our brewery," Jeffries writes on his website. "Fun, quirky. All that needed adding were the last two words, 'Artisan Ales', the description of the brewery’s products and mission."
Jolly Pumpkin's beers are distinctive. Jeffries brews with French and Belgian yeasts and ages his beers in oak casks to bring out maximum complexity. The sour, funky flavors that result from this process have become a hallmark of Jolly Pumpkin and other brewers who treat making and drinking beer as a living, breathing process.
Madrugada Obscura "Dark Dawn Stout" is a confusing beer even by Jolly Pumpkin's standards. The name doesn't do much to clear things up. "Madrugada" means dawn or early morning in Spanish, while "obscura" translates to obscure or dark. The beer is classified as an imperial stout, but this Belgian-inspired offering is unlike most stouts you're used to. The ale is aged in oak and is bottle-conditioned (living thing).
I crack open a Madrugada Obscura that was bottled on Jan. 10. In case I was still holding out hope for a traditional stout, a pungent, musty nose grabs my hand and steers me away from preconceived notions of what that might be. Lifted from the bottle's label, the quote in Italics above the review should have been a hint that I was getting in deep.
A long whiff of tart cherries, chocolate, lemon, and smoke greets you with a wallop. The yeast is in the driver's seat, the imperial stout notes slapping the strings of the bass methodically in the background. Some drinkers on popular beer review websites are upset about the labeling of the beer as a stout rather than a sour, but sometimes I'm OK with just going along for the ride.
Green apple skin starts the first sip before coffee, roasted marshmallows, and blue cheese rush in. The mouthfeel is light, effervescent but short of fizzy. It's definitely more sour than stout, with lemon peel and barnyard funk stealing the show.
If I were new to craft beer I might hate this. I'd also never forget the experience, and a couple of beers down the road, I might think back to trying this and wonder just what beer is supposed to taste like. Provided a willingness to fall off the map in the future, Madrugada Obscura could open doors that might have otherwise been closed.