109 pounds of pumpkin meat from 17 cans went into this year's batch of Pumpkin Ale at the Great Dane-Fitchburg.
After trying many pumpkin beers, I tend to be skeptical -- I find the sweet vegetal flavor of many of them to be off-putting. The trick is to avoid those that taste like pumpkin pie in a glass. The Great Dane in Fitchburg just released a treat: its 2011 Pumpkin Ale, for those who crave that unique mix of beer, cinnamon and nutmeg.
What is it? Pumpkin Ale from the Great Dane-Fitchburg.
Style: Pumpkin beers vary greatly in flavor and in how they are made. Most of them commonly begin as ales, with some, because of their strength, even deemed "imperial." A few are even brewed as lagers. The Great Dane-Fitchburg's version has as its base a lighter pale ale, made with pale malt and a small amount of Millennium hops.
Overall, pumpkin beers are not considered a specific style. Rather, they're treated as a sub-category of vegetable and fruit beers. They are most commonly released in the fall, and their recipes often call for some of the same spices you find in pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg and allspice.
Brewers sometimes use fresh pumpkins, but that requires extra steps, since they have to be cooked ahead of time, and the flavor can be inconsistent. The filtering can also be challenging. So brewers often choose canned pumpkin meat or even pre-processed pumpkin pie filling instead.
Background: Pat Keller, brewer at the Great Dane-Fitchburg, has made pumpkin ale nearly every year around Halloween since the brewpub opened in 2002. He considers it one of the stickiest and messiest beers that he makes. "You end up wearing pumpkin all over you, and often it runs down the side of the brew kettle," he says. Every year Keller likes to tweak the combination of pumpkin sweetness, spicy dryness, and overall beer flavor in the recipe. This year, he set out to make a pumpkin ale that emphasizes the spicy side, yet respects a core sweetness from the pumpkin.
Pumpkin beers have a short life. Once they go on tap, they usually stick around for just a few weeks, because most beer drinkers enjoy one at a sitting, but rarely two. That's why most brewpubs wait until Halloween through Thanksgiving to release their version. Keller admits these ales can be a bit of a novelty, especially those that end up being too heavy and sweet.
Keller's 2011 version of Pumpkin Ale was made with 109 pounds, or 17 cans, of pumpkin. He planned to use 18 cans, but one of the cooks in the Great Dane's kitchen swiped one for a dessert recipe the day before he was set to brew. The shorting of the one can merely reinforced Keller's recipe, which gives emphasis to the spices in his beer.
The Great Dane-Fitchburg's Pumpkin Ale takes about three weeks to make, and it finishes around 4.5 % ABV. This year's brew will be on tap at both the Fitchburg and Hilldale Great Danes, while The downtown location makes its own version. At Fitchburg it sells for $5/pint and $10/growler (refill).
- Aroma: A firm spicy, slightly sweet aroma.
- Appearance: Clear, orange-amber color and a smooth soft off-white head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, bubbly and round.
- Taste: An assertive, but not overwhelming, flavor of spicy, especially cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The pumpkin sweetness comes in at the end.
Glassware: The standard bar pint is a common way to serve this beer. However, the tulip or snifter style of glass would be a good choice, to accentuate aromas and encourage sipping in order to savor both the spices and the sweetness.
Pairs well with: Pumpkin beer is best as an appetizer or an after-dinner dessert. It's really a beer to appreciate for its own combination of sweetness and spicy tones.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Consensus: Current ratings are not specific for this year's batch, nor do they reflect the uniqueness of the 2011 version brewed by the Great Dane-Fitchburg. Previous ratings give previous releases an A (outstanding) at BeerAdvocate and a 56/61 (overall/style) at RateBeer.
The Verdict: There's a line in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown where Linus says, "There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin." Perhaps that's why, every year at this time, I tend to shrug off an annual pumpkin beer review. It's a type of beer that I personally shy away from and rarely recommend to friends. However, when they are done well, they can surprise and even bring me back for a second pint.
Pat Keller has achieved a pumpkin ale with a tip to the spicy side. If you appreciate balance in a pumpkin beer, this one is worthy of a stop at the Dane in Fitchburg. The dryness of the nutmeg and cloves come our early in the aroma and flavor, while the pumpkin sweetness softens and lingers lightly in the finish.