Autumn tidings from winter squash

Is it just me, or was today shorter than yesterday? The first hints of an autumn zephyr are in the air. The leaves of the deciduous trees can no longer deny reality: their chlorophyll reserves are running low. Soon, we will be greeted with the smells and flavors of Fall–an old friend that can be counted on to return every September. Fall is full of traditions, like apple picking and carving jack-o-lanterns. These annual rituals reflect the goings-on of the natural world, with our own touches added in. Perhaps the reason we humans find comfort in traditions is that the Earth had its own traditions long before humanity was in its infancy. We find comfort in the cyclic. These traditions are a reminder that there is a predictability to the world, despite its seeming chaos. We have no idea what will happen tomorrow, but we can always count on cinnamon-doused baked goods in the Fall. The annual transition from Summer to Fall is a bittersweet one, but our wonderful rituals that vaguely involve earth tones, gourds and hay rides somehow tip the balance in favor of sweetness.

It may seem odd that Aeronaut, of all institutions, is publishing a blog discussing Tradition. After all, we are only in our second year. However, as I began to write about our smoked butternut squash beer, Lagerfeuer, I found myself trying to avoid repetition of last year’s publication about the very same beer. What occurs to me now is that we find ourselves at a special moment in the history of Aeronaut, wherein we get to establish new traditions to repeat each year. The tremendous amount of work that goes into our smoked butternut squash beer is fast becoming a ritual that heightens the anticipation and appreciation of this unique lager.

Like last year, Lagerfeuer began its life at the farm. This time, I wanted to get a little closer to the source of our squash. We found an excellent local source of butternut squash this year, out at Plainville Farm in Hadley, MA. I drove the pickup truck out there last week and this time, I got to walk the fields and get up close and personal with the squash in their native environment.

Approaching the farm…

There, I encountered an endless expanse of butternut squash, each one filled with enough seeds to plant yet another field of squash. We loaded the truck with around 800 pounds of it, which somehow didn’t even seem like that much after looking over the vast fields.

Obviously, there was much peeling and seeding to be done. We threw a squash prepping bee at Aeronaut a few days later. Nine intrepid volunteers joined us to peel squash after squash, separate the seeds, and slice them up into neat strips so that they would smoke evenly. Butternut squash are unique in having very distinct shapes and personalities, varying remarkably from one to another. Some were very long and thin, others were wide and straight, and still others tilted to the side. Everyone had their own technique for peeling and cutting the squash, which was fun to observe. Some folks tried to peel the squash in one continuous strip. Others debated the merits of halving them vertically or horizontally. Regardless of the method, once they were peeled and cut, they all ended up as uniform orange chunks.

The next day, I drove nine bins full of squash chunks over to our old friends at Blue Ribbon BBQ for a thorough smoking. This year, we gave them all a pre-roast to increase the permeability and soften them up. It took all day to smoke the whole batch. When they were done, the squash pieces shrunk down to about half of their original size, which made it easier to carry them back to Aeronaut.

For this year’s brew, we decided to skip the pureeing process. Last year, we pureed all of the smoked squash to make sure they extracted thoroughly and to make sure they passed through our pump from the mash tun to the lauter tun. While we did achieve those goals, the thick squash puree caused the mash to stick quite intensely, which made the runoff of wort extremely slow and cleanup a total mess. So this year, we made sure the squash chunks were small, and deposited them directly into the lauter tun. Having tested this method last winter, we knew we’d get excellent flavor, sugar and color extraction from the squash. The richness of red and white oak smoke filled the brewery during this year’s Lagerfeuer brew, and the wort ran off without a hitch.

Now, we just have to let the yeast do their work eating all those sugars. We eagerly anticipate this year’s release of Lagerfeuer, which is fast becoming as welcome and familiar as pumpkins, apple cider and those odd, but ubiquitous cornucopias. Look for it in late October!