Long before he opened for business, Sean Wilson decided he wanted to use local ingredients as often as possible when it came to making his beers. The founder of Durham, North Carolina’s Fullsteam Brewery surveyed the state’s agricultural scene and realized that it was the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation. Putting the starchy orange vegetable into a lager just made sense.
Each year in November, millions of Americans gather together to give thanks. The usual suspects will certainly be present—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy. There will no doubt be casseroles, many featuring sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, vegetables and plenty of pies for dessert.
Sweet potatoes seem to be most popular during the Fall and around Thanksgiving, so one would naturally assume that Wilson would release it as an autumn seasonal. But no, his Carver Sweet Potato Beer, a modestly-hopped Amber at 5.8% ABV, is available year round, giving those who like the orange vegetable a regular fix.
There are certainly enough sweet potatoes to support a year-round effort. According to Charlie Walker, a spokesman for the United States Sweet Potato Council, the country produced 1.96 billion pounds of the underground-grown vegetable. While it is a starch that enjoys popularity around this time of year, Walker said there has been a strong year-round growth especially in the frozen sweet potato French fry market.
“But I can say I’ve never heard of it going into a beer,” he said.
In the brewing world, however, sweet potatoes are hot.
For its 2009 anniversary beer, Allagash Brewing Company released Fluxus, a Saison with sweet potatoes and black peppercorns.
“I’m from the south and I love Saisons, so it made sense to pair the two,” said Dee Dee Germain, who brewed the beer for Allagash. The result was a smooth, pale orange Farmhouse beer with a medium body but no overwhelming sweet potato flavor, despite being added in both the mash and brew kettle.
It seems even homebrewers are getting in on the sweet potato action. Jonathan Moxey an avid homebrewer who lives in New York City recently paired up with Stevie Caldarola of Ladies of Craft Beer to create and brew what they dubbed the Sweet Potato Rauchbier of Doom! For that recipe, Moxey roasted the sweet potatoes “slow and low” to preserve and enhance flavor and added the tiny cubes to the mash.
With bacon-smoked malts and grade-A maple syrup to complement the potatoes, Moxey said the idea was to have a beer that did not necessarily stand on its own “but could complement the roast turkey, stuffing and all the other good stuff that gets on the table this time of year.”
For all this sweet potato talk, there might be some who are wondering about yams. In the United States the two are largely considered to be the same vegetable with different names. Some are even marked that way. However, sweet potatoes are actually different from yams, which are typically more orange in appearance and softer.
The Bruery, based in California, uses the locally grown garnet variety of yams in their seasonal Autumn Maple, which is similar to many pumpkin beers released this time of year with a focus on spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
Selling Sweet Potato Beers to a Skeptical Public
“The trick for us is to sell what it’s not, rather than what it is,” said Wilson of Fullsteam. “It’s not a pie, it’s trying to be it’s own thing that celebrates local ingredients. We often get the you must be insane eyebrow looks all the time.”
Wilson’s version includes 500 pounds of sweet potato puree in each batch and added to the mash. He has chosen not to feature spices and winds up with a nice session lager that has a distinct but not overwhelming sweet potato taste.
“It does require some education,” said Wilson who encourages bars that serve it on tap to offer tastes to patrons. “Nine out of ten will order a pint.”
Still not convinced? Consider that sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, vitamins A and C. They are packed with fiber and have nearly as much potassium as a banana. The United States Department of Agriculture considers them to be one of the best sources of nutrients.
Plus, to keep with Thanksgiving traditions, you can always put a few marshmallows on top of your pint.
John Holl is a frequent contributor to CraftBeer.com and has written for the New York Times, the Star-Ledger, Ale Street News and Beer Connoisseur Magazine. He is the co-author of a soon to be released book about Indiana Breweries and may be reached at JohnHoll@gmail.com or via twitter @John_Holl .