King Cake | Pipeworks Brewing
Celebrations of holidays can sometimes vary depending on location. In Chicago, Fat Tuesday is celebrated with paczki, the delightful Polish pastry with filling. I assumed that was what you did for Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras. Until I actually went to Mardi Gras in 2010 and discovered the king cake. A coffee cake/cinnamon roll hybrid, the king cake comes resplendent in green, purple and gold icing. But it has a twist. There’s a baby inside. (The king cake represents the Three Wise Men while the baby is Jesus; all this is for Epiphany.) I didn’t know that until I bit into a slice and came down hard on that baby. And so I learned – don’t mess with baby Jesus.
At least once on the podcast, we suggested that a brewery make a king cake beer, complete with a baby inside the can (much like the nitro can widget). A beer with cinnamon, lemon and who knows what else (maybe coffee?) sounds about right for a brewery in 2022. I was honestly surprised not to have seen a beer like it in Chicago – UNTIL NOW. Pipeworks went ahead and made a “king cake inspired” ale called, um, King Cake.
So yes, I have no idea what style this is supposed to be. Untappd lists it as as Other. Beer Advocate lists it as an American Pale Ale, but I really don’t think that’s right. I can tell you King Cake features lactose, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon. I’ll also be eating a king cake from Junebug Cafe before trying the beer (and with it) to see how accurate it portrays the pastry.
Junebug King Cake
Junebug Cafe has two locations in Chicago – one in Portage Park and the other in West Town. They serve small bites as well and, upon checking various reviews of King Cakes available in Chicago, theirs seemed to garner the most “accurate to the New Orleans version” in taste.
Junebug’s King cake really doesn’t match what I remember getting in New Orleans long ago in terms of appearance. It’s closer to being bagel size as opposed to cake and the baby is on top of it rather than in it. Boo! A glaze or icing covers the entire pastry with green, red and gold sprinkles scattered about. It came with some beads and in a nice little box to transport it home safely.
It tastes very similar to what I remember. Coffee cake with a nice shot of cinnamon, with other baking spices mixed in there. The glaze/icing adds some sweetness while the sprinkles add crunch. The bread is moist and chewy and cuts into any sweetness you might get from the icing. Junebug says their king cake serves two, but I managed to polish it off by myself no problem. Of course I drank a beer with some of it! Definitely recommended if you don’t want to deal with a cake size portion of King Cake.
Pipeworks King Cake
Pipeworks’ King Cake pours like a golden ale. Just by looking at it I’d guess the style would be similar to Maplewood’s pastry case ale series. A healthy two fingers of head reduces to about a finger that hangs around for a bit. I can see a shadow of my finger on the other side of the glass, so light comes through. So thankfully Pipeworks didn’t actually cram a king cake in the mash tun! But points off for no baby in the can!
So whoever put American pale ale as the style on Beer Advcoate hasn’t tried the beer. Lemon bread hits my nose first and the most, followed by some baking spices consisting mostly of nutmeg and cinnamon. A milk-like note comes courtesy of the lactose. No hop aroma at all. I would recommend letting the beer warm up. I had mine in the fridge for a day or so because I had no idea the ideal serving temperature for a “King Cake inspired” ale. Definitely treat it closer to a stout in this regard. Right out of the fridge the lemon pretty much dominates everything while any spices really struggle in the background. Warmed up, though, the spices slice out a little more aroma room.
Cold or warm the lemon on the King Cake dominates the flavor profile. Don’t think of it like a Lemonhead or anything like that; the lemon most definitely isn’t sour and only really provides a wisp of tartness. I could see it having a hop addition that produced some lemon notes instead of actual lemon being used. Some light bready notes seem to be present as well, but it could just be me being in the “I’m thinking about the food now” mode. The beer finishes somewhat dry as well.
Much like the aroma, any spices – specifically nutmeg and cinnamon – don’t pop at all. They are there, but I was expecting more of at least one of them, especially after having a king cake. (Full disclosure: I had the food stuff one day and the beer the next, then had them together after trying the beer.) Any spice serves as support to the lemony bread notes of the beer. The high medium carbonation keeps things moving right along, with only a scant smattering of lemon and light spices sticking around.
On beers like this, the big question is: Would I say this is “that pastry” beer if I had it blind? No, not at all. It really helped being able to try a king cake to refresh my memory of what it tastes like. Based on the Junebug king cake, the beer should’ve come in hot on the cinnamon and nutmeg, kept the bready note, and reduced the lemon to support. The lactose assisted in mouthfeel and not much else.
While King Cake is a fine beer, it really doesn’t pull off the pastry well enough. I’m usually on the “less is more” for these types of beers, but when the pastry is heavy spices like the king cake is, the beer really should mimic that within reason. For some reason I keep thinking a style with a bready and lightly spice note would do better at mimicking a king cake; something like a Belgian tripel perhaps. Definitely a try it before you buy it or, if you go to a place like Beer on the Wall, buy a can.