GUY RAZ, host:
Eric Asimov was trying to figure out the best-tasting Belgian-style beer. Asimov is the wine critic for the New York Times. So he put together a blind taste test, and he discovered that among those beers, his favorite comes from.
Mr. ERIC ASIMOV (Wine Critic, New York Times): Dexter, Michigan.
RAZ: And that beer is called?
Mr. ASIMOV: Oro de Calabaza from Jolly Pumpkin.
RAZ: Now, you tried 20 Belgian-style ales. Some were from Belgium. Some were from the United States. What set this beer, the Oro de Calabaza, apart from all the others?
Mr. ASIMOV: This was a beer that was wonderfully fresh but also complex and also very focused and precise, and by that, I mean that you can detect all the different sorts of flavors: spiciness, a fruitiness, the bitterness that comes from hops. You can detect them all individually, and yet they form almost a seamless unity.
RAZ: That's New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov. Eric, thank you so much.
Mr. ASIMOV: Thank you.
RAZ: We were curious about this top-ranking Belgian ale that's not from Belgium. So we sent NPR's Noah Adams to Dexter, Michigan, to see what the folks at Jolly Pumpkin are doing right.
NOAH ADAMS: Dexter is a small town near Ann Arbor. It's the home of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. Ron Jeffries is the brewmaster, the designer of Oro de Calabaza. Here's how he describes it.
Mr. RON JEFFRIES (Founder, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales): The aroma for me is sort of musty cellar, a little corky. Then the flavor of the beer, you get different fruit notes: pineapple, some mango. You get a peppery spiciness in the finish. So you have these esters, these phenols, all created through the various stages of fermentation.
ADAMS: Most people uncapping a Jolly Pumpkin beer for the first time would say it's sour, and that's true. Ron Jeffries decided all his beers would be sour, unfiltered, aged in oak barrels and would continue to develop in the bottle.
They use a Belgian strain of yeast to start, and then the wild yeast comes to play, yeast that lives in Dexter, Michigan.
Mr. JEFFRIES: Well, yeast is all around. It's in the air, kind of like its less-glamorous cousin mold, and if you give it a happy home, such as a barrel filled with a liquid that it would like to continue to ferment, beer or wine or whatever it might be, it will eventually find that and go to work on it.
ADAMS: Ron Jeffries and his wife Laurie started Jolly Pumpkin six years ago now. Jeffries had learned his trade working in busy brewpubs. Then came time for his own brand.
Mr. JEFFRIES: We had a few beers on the patio, and we brainstormed, and we came up with a long list of potential brewery names. The absolute most ridiculous name on that list was Jolly Pumpkin, and it made us laugh. Every time we would say it, we would just laugh. I mean, who would call a brewery Jolly Pumpkin? It's ludicrous. So it stuck.
ADAMS: The Jolly Pumpkin beers all have Spanish names, sort of a pirate subtext. Oro de Calabaza means gold of pumpkin. The bottles are big, 25 ounces, and dark brown for light protection.
Mr. JEFFRIES: Thicker glass. It's most of the glass in the U.S. is what's called one-way glass. It's very thin material. Less cost in shipping and freight. For us, with our bottle conditioning, we developed quite a high level of carbonation with time. So we need a heavier-weight glass that can hold that carbonation in.
ADAMS: Even those Jeffries and his partners have now opened two brewpubs in Michigan, he comes to work here in old clothes, helps clean the kegs that are going out full. Someday he might find the time and money to go see how his Belgian counterparts do all this.
His beer has been winning awards and praise, but he cautions himself: Don't get carried away.
Mr. JEFFRIES: People at first didn't understand what we were trying to do with sour beer, and even now, people don't. We get emails a lot less frequently now than we did when we opened, but you know, they invariably will start, you know, I'm a craft beer drinker. I've been drinking craft beer for this many years, and I bought a bottle of your beer, and it was sour, and it was the worst beer I ever had, and I don't like it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ADAMS: Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. He has the number one Belgian-style beer on a New York Times list of 20. He also made the number four beer.
For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.