Pumpkin beers are the best-selling seasonal beer in the United States, but sweet potato beers are gaining ground as an autumnal alternative.
The root vegetable is perhaps a more fitting choice in North Carolina, given its status as the top sweet potato-producing state in the nation since 1971. More than half of the country’s sweet potatoes come from right here in the Tar Heel state.
Birdsong Brewing in Charlotte cuts by hand 320 pounds of sweet potatoes for each batch of St. Tuber Abbey Ale, which it has brewed since 2012. The beer is brewed with cloves and fermented with a Belgian yeast. The brewery also releases bottles of a bourbon barrel-aged version every year. Across town, Wooden Robot Brewery brews Sweet Tater Pie with cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and whole vanilla beans. The beer will be available on draft around mid to late October.
Fullsteam Brewery’s Carver is one of the most well-known examples in the state. Brewed year-round but canned only in the fall, this year’s new label features an illustration of George Washington Carver and below it a proclamation: “200 pounds of sweet potatoes. Zero ounces of pie spice.”
That’s a necessary distinction, according to Sean Lilly Wilson, who opened the Durham brewery in 2010.
“People’s impression of sweet potato is often driven by the spices that accompany it,” he says. “A lot of times a customer’s reference point for a sweet potato isn’t in the inherent flavor of the sweet potato itself, but in the accompanying spices.”
When people think of sweet potatoes, in other words, they often imagine them candied or in casseroles. But you won’t find brown sugar or cinnamon in Fullsteam’s Carver.
“We’re asking people to think of this as a lager first that just happens to be brewed with sweet potatoes,” says Wilson.
Asheville’s Burial Beer Co. has never brewed a pumpkin beer. Instead, they brew Skullsaw Harvest Porter every fall using North Carolina sweet potatoes in the mash. As with Carver, there are no spices used. Instead, the sweet potatoes provide depth and an earthy quality that compliments the roasted malts, according to co-founder Jess Reiser. The beer returns on draft at the brewery’s annual Burnpile Harvest Fest, held at the brewery on Saturday, Oct. 29.
Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton waits until closer to Thanksgiving to release Supper Table, a 4 percent ABV beer brewed with 200 pounds of local sweet potatoes and molasses.
“We really try to wait until the weather has completely turned and it’s just kind of a nice fall beer,” says founder and brewer Todd Boera, who finds sweet potato beers to be a more fitting fall seasonal than the pumpkin beer. “I love pumpkins and I love the idea behind pumpkin beers, but I feel so bad for the pumpkin that it’s been so bastardized.”
He’s referring to the fact that many pumpkin beers are released in the middle of summer, long before pumpkins are harvested. That said, Boera foresees a future when the brewery could “take back pumpkin beer” by brewing a more authentic version with pumpkins grown at its farmhouse brewery, which is currently in planning.
For now, look for Supper Table to be released around early November to last through Thanksgiving (when everyone else has moved on to winter beers, Boera jokes).
And while many of the state’s brewers view sweet potatoes as an alternative to the more popular pumpkin, Ass Clown Brewing in Cornelius sees no reason to pick sides. The brewery’s Yam It All is brewed with both yams and pumpkin, and will return this November.
Because why should you have to choose between the two this fall?
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.