Welcome to Behind the Beer, a series in which we present the stories behind Long Island’s best beers, as told by the brewers who make them.
The series continues with Sweet Potato Saison, a unique beer from perhaps Long Island’s most unique brewery, Blind Bat Brewery.
“Sweet Potato Saison is a beer that both includes and celebrates the harvest season. It’s a beer that captures a sense of both place and time,” says Paul Dlugokencky, who operates Blind Bat Brewery out of a detached garage at his home in Centerport.
A nod to beer’s homegrown past, and a challenge to how intensely industrial the brewing process has become, Dlugokencky is among a growing number of brewers across the country incorporating local ingredients into their beers. He sources from many farmers and producers on Long Island—and even his wife, Regina, who is a grower—to imbue Blind Bat’s beers, one of which is Sweet Potato Saison, with “not only the spirit of brewing tradition, but also of local community and culture. Making beer like this, I get to shake the hand of the hop farmer who gave me hops for my pale ale, the oyster farmer who gave me the oysters for my stout, and the roaster who roasted the coffee beans I put in my brown ale. By all working together, we all benefit together.”
This is the story behind Sweet Potato Saison, in Dlugokencky’s words.
Paul Dlugokencky, founder of Blind Bat Brewery: As a homebrewer back in the early 2000s, I liked to make pumpkin beers come fall. But I’ve always liked to brew different things that seem like a fun challenge too. With so many great (and not-so-great) pumpkin beers out in the market, I thought that another autumnal vegetable might be a good alternative to brew with during the season. And since sweet potatoes are often prepared with nutmeg and other spices used in making pumpkin pie, and in making pumpkin beer, it made sense.
Because my wife Regina has in the past been a farmer, and is currently an organic grower on a smaller scale, I’ve been exposed to the beauties of local agriculture more than most. And that’s definitely informed my philosophy on brewing. I’ve had the opportunity to use locally grown hops, herbs, basils, even “regular” potatoes in a variety of beers over the years. Historically brewers have used whatever’s been available to work with, so exploring the possibilities of what I have access to, from various root vegetables as fermentables to different herbs as compliments to hops, comes naturally to me.
In my Sweet Potato Saison we use local organic sweet potatoes sourced from either Sang Lee Farms in Peconic or Ty Llywd Farm in Riverhead. Availability dictates which farm we use—Ty Llywd provided the most recent batch that debuted last weekend and should be available through December—but both are excellent farms that I have the utmost respect for. As a side note, if you’re going to go organic with anything, it’s best to go organic with crops that grow under the ground (any kind of potato, for example). Conventional farming often entails the intensive use of some chemicals you might want to avoid.
I started brewing Sweet Potato Saison back in 2012, and the recipe hasn’t changed much from that first batch. I chose saison as the base for the beer because the style’s historical roots go back to Belgian farmers brewing with what they had on hand, which I’m familiar with. I also thought that the traditional saison yeast might play well with the spices often used when one is cooking sweet potatoes, mainly nutmeg and cardamom.
To start the brewing process I’ll roast about 12 pounds of sweet potatoes in my kitchen for a small three-barrel batch, which comes to about 90 gallons of beer. The potatoes get added into the mash, the process that uses hot water and natural enzymes to convert complex sugars from malt into simpler sugars that can be readily fermented. As with a lot of pumpkin beers, in this beer I think you get more of the associated spices added—nutmeg, freshly broken up cardamom pods—than the sweet potatoes themselves, which do contribute some dryness and a bit to the background flavor as well as some orange color when roasted. If I didn’t roasted the sweet potatoes, they would add more color than taste and aroma.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve brewed with “regular” potatoes before. That’s for another beer I make called Long Island Potato Stout, stylistically a dry Irish stout. For that I use starchy/mealy potatoes such as russet, Yukon Gold, and Keuka Gold, with the starches from the potatoes upping the style’s characteristic dryness. I peel, boil, and then mash the potatoes without adding salt or milk, and then add those mashed potatoes to the mash of barley, hence the “twice mashed” on the label. As with Sweet Potato Saison I always use potatoes grown here organically for Long Island Potato Stout, with the most recent batch brewed with Keuka Gold from Sang Lee Farms. I’ve also used sourced from Mary Callahan of Three Castles Gardens in Old Westbury.
Sweet Potato Saison has a medium body with a bit of an orange color. (Being colorblind, I have to believe what I’m told about that.)
Whether I’m using sweet or regular potatoes, there is a danger in getting a stuck mash, with the potatoes potentially clogging up the equipment. So I’ll either add a generous amount of rice hulls to aid with flow of liquid or I’ll put the sweet potatoes in mesh bags within the mash.
Sweet Potato Saison has a medium body with a bit of an orange color. (Being colorblind, I have to believe what I’m told about that.) When drinking it you should get an earthy, slightly sweet quality, some caramel thanks to the roasting of the sweet potatoes, and some of the nutmeg and cardamom playing along with the slightly spicy character contributed by the the saison yeast in both the aroma and flavor. While I always ferment this beer with a saison yeast, at times I like to play around with wild yeasts, so there’s another, more sporadic version of this beer with wild yeast that has more of a tart quality. I hope it gives another dimension to the drinker to enjoy should they enjoy tartness paired with spices and some sweetness. Also, know that I’ll note on the label if it’s the tart version.
No one beer is for everyone, but those who like Sweet Potato Saison seem to like it quite a bit. I don’t brew this beer too frequently, as it was originally targeted for Thanksgiving and meant for autumn and winter consumption, but when possible I brew it “out of season” to extend its availability, and often the “out of season” version is more tart. It’s interesting that the slightly tart version has a different audience than the “regular” version.
The next (regular) batch just landed this week at the local farmers’ markets we sell at—check our website for locations and times—and then I’ll be getting it into select beer stores and bars around the island in December. I hope you’ll check it out, and I hope you enjoy it.