While Lakefront Brewery is best known for the beers it produces, the company's impact on the craft brewing industry is noteworthy as well. More than a decade ago, owner Rush Klisch was among the first in the current generation of brewing entrepreneurs to embrace using locally grown ingredients. He has also been active in working with federal regulatory officials on labeling requirements for both organic and gluten-free beers.
In fact, Lakefront Organic ESB lays claim to being the first certified organic beer in the U.S., and sets the standard for such brews many ways. The beer is made with 100% organic malt and 100% organic hops, in what Klisch describes as a return to more traditional practices for growing the ingredients necessary for brewing.
"It seems we've forgotten how it used to be done, before everybody got used to using pesticides and fertilizers," he says. "As an engineer and brewer I always look for simpler ways of doing things, and this is what we should be doing more of when making beer."
What is it? Organic ESB Ale from Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Style: The ESB, which stands for "extra special bitter," is a derivation of the British bitter. It's a very common style served in English pubs. The "extra special" arose as a marketing label given to premium bitter beers, and eventually it became a recognized style in its own right. The style offers deep copper to bronze color with malty, sweet flavors and mild hoppiness.
A good ESB should be balanced. Some spicy and dry qualities from mild additions of hops are common, but despite its name, this isn't a very bitter beer. The ESB is tame compared to American pale ales and India pale ales. Fullers ESB from London is considered the standard-bearer of the style. Overall, this is an easy drinking beer at 4.8%-5.8% ABV and 30-45 IBUs.
Background: Lakefront Brewery opened in 1987 and has been making its Organic ESB since 1996. "It's a steady seller -- there are not many players in the organic beer market, and it's something that I'd like to expand," says Klisch.
Being a certified organic ESB makes this beer unique. "Back in 1996, the ESB was a hot style, and at the time it was one you didn't have to have a lot of hops to make it with," Klisch explains. The challenge in finding organic ingredients, and especially hops, has always greatly influenced the beer's development. "When we first started making it the only organic hop I could find was Pride of Ringwood, an Australian hop, which is probably the most obscure hop and the worst tasting one I ever had," he laughs. But over the years, organically grown hops and malts have become much easier to acquire.
To achieve organic certification for its ESB, Lakefront is inspected annually. All the malts and hops that are used to make it must remain separate so they don't become mixed with ingredients used in non-organic beers. Klisch offers an example: "We have to purge the malts out of our conveyor system with organic ones before we can make the ESB." Klisch purchases his organic grains from the Briess Malt & Ingredients Company of Chilton, Wisconsin, and the organic Cascade hops from Hopsteiner of Yakima, Washington.
After introducing Lakefront Organic ESB nearly two decades ago, it wasn't long until other larger breweries started their own organic beer programs. By 2004, bigger brewery interests, with their considerable political clout, had influenced the certification requirements so that not all ingredients, specifically hops, needed to be grown using organic production methods.
"I didn't agree with them," says Klisch. "It just seemed silly when at least half of the flavor can come from one ingredient [hops] and that it didn't have to be all organic for a beer to be certified." To get the rules changed to require hops be grown with organic methods, Klisch wrote letters to USDA, testified in an agency hearing, and worked with hop growers to assemble petitions. By 2010, his efforts were successful and the USDA reversed its policy -- it started requiring 100% organic hops for certification.
Lakefront has a growing lineup of organic beers, which also includes White (a Belgian-style white ale with organic coriander and orange peel), Fuel Cafe (a coffee stout) and Beerline (a barley wine). By the way, Klisch was instrumental in similar efforts to get federal regulators to recognize gluten-free beer. Thanks to that work, the brewery's New Grist was the country's first gluten-free brand to meet the federal approval process.
Lakefront Organic ESB is available year-round. It finishes at 5.8% ABV and 25 IBUs, and sells for $8-$9 per six-pack.
For fans of Lakefront, next up in its limited release My Turn series of four-packs is a dunkelweizen called Colin. These beers are named for the brewery employees who create them. Colin Ford, a second shift brewer at Lakefront, developed this entry.
Another upcoming release this fall is Local Acre, a beer Lakefront promotes as the first since pre-Prohibition times to be made with 100% Wisconsin-grown malt and hops. This beer's release is being tweaked a bit for this year; the wet hop version will not be produced due to the challenges in harvesting cones and immediately delivering them to the brewhouse so they can be dropped in an awaiting brew kettle. However, given the timing of its release, Local Acre can still be considered among the growing ranks of fall hop harvest beers.
Coming up in November is Lakefront Black Friday, the brewery's very limited special release brew that is only offered the day after Thanksgiving. This year's edition is a barrel-aged Russian imperial stout. Those who want a bottle should watch the brewery's Facebook and Twitter accounts. The beer has to be ordered online, and then picked up at Lakefront on Black Friday itself. As in years past, this is a highly sought after beer, and it will all be sold out in less than a day.
- Aroma: A light floral sweetness.
- Appearance: Clear copper with a reddish amber tint. A thick, soft, tan head.
- Texture: Medium-to-light bodied. Round and soft.
- Taste: Soft caramel and bready maltiness. A mild hoppy-spiciness in the background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The maltiness continues through the finish. The hoppy-spicy qualities intensify somewhat in the finish. However this isn't very hoppy or bitter. It's much more about the malts.
Glassware: Out of respect for the traditions of the style, the English pint is the way to enjoy an ESB.
Pairs well with: Lakefront Organic ESB's caramel-malty flavor is a nice beer for late-season barbecues featuring pork, sausage, and even roasted veggies on the grill.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: For those conscious about an organic certification, this beer will meet, even exceed expectations. All too often, because of difficulties in finding quality raw ingredients, organic beers end up being bland or worse. There also aren't too many of these to choose from on local shelves. And certified or not, this is a well-made ESB, one that deserves better marks from online ratings. The bottom line for me -- Lakefront Organic ESB is easy drinking and clean.
I like the brewery's choice of hops and how that selection has evolved to feature the sharp and citrus Cascades, which seem to blend with the caramel malts to create spicy qualities, especially in the finish. However, this ESB is still mostly about malt with smooth bready-biscuit tones are noticed first in the aroma and then remain in its flavor to the very end.
Lakefront Organic ESB is a nice middle-of-the-road brew that's not too strong, and it goes well with a range of foods. While I'd like a little more body and mouthfeel to go with its maltiness, that's not a huge flaw. It's a reliable beer have on hand, and a drinkable reminder of Lakefront's commitment to pushing organic brewing forward.