Pumpkin beer is an acquired taste for many beer drinkers. It's a fall specialty brew that starts appearing on taps and shelves in September, but by Thanksgiving, it's rarely around to enjoy with its counterpart pumpkin pie. I can enjoy about one at a setting, but rarely two. All too often the brewers add just too much pumpkin or spices, which become sweeter and spicier over the course of a pint. Good ones, like the Pumpkin Lager made by Lakefront Brewery, are few and far between. This brew falls in the good category because it's cleaner and better balanced than most. It's Lakefront's longest-running seasonal beer and one of the brewery's most popular limited releases.
What is it? Pumpkin Lager from Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Style: Pumpkin beers are customarily fall seasonal brews. They vary in the intensity of pumpkin flavor and in how they are made. Brewers actually consider them a subcategory of vegetable and fruit beers, rather than a specific style. Overall, you'll find them mostly as top fermenting ales, often incorporated in styles such as amber ales, porters or stouts. Lakefront's version is a lager, one of the few made that way in the U.S. As a lager, there's less of the fruity-estery tones commonly found in ales. Pumpkin beers are usually made with the same spices you find in pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.
Background: Lakefront made its first pumpkin beer back in 1988 at the request of Pete Wolberson, the owner of The Tracks Tavern & Grill in Milwaukee. That was early in Lakefront's life, just a year after Jim and Russ Klisch opened the brewery. To develop the recipe, the Klisch brothers turned to their homebrew books and an obscure citation that referenced a pumpkin beer believed to have been made by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Each 50-barrel batch of Lakefront Pumpkin Lager is made with about 200 ounces of canned pumpkin. The pumpkin is cooked with the initial mash. "We use just enough pumpkin to give it color and flavor," says the brewery's Matt Krjnak. At its core are caramel and Munich malts, which offer some soft sweetness that complements the pumpkin. At just 10 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), the beer is just lightly bittered with Mt. Hood hops for a touch of balance. Part of the secret, says brewery owner Russ Klisch, is the careful blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom; all spices are from The Spice House in Milwaukee.
Lakefront Pumpkin Ale takes about five weeks to make, and it finishes at 6% ABV. It sells in six-packs for around $8.50, and should be available into November.
Every January, Lakefront Brewing also makes a special batch of Pumpkin Lager that it provides to Great Lakes Distillery, which then uses it to produce a 90 proof (45% ABV) pumpkin liqueur. Brewery president Russ Klisch says he got the idea about five years ago when he made a little too much of his pumpkin beer and it was left over at the end of the season. He called up some friends at Great Lakes Distillery with the idea of using it to make a seasonal liquor. After some testing and tweaking of the recipe, the distillery decided to market it as a seasonal spirit. Now, Klish makes a special batch with more spices, pumpkin and malts, which is fermented in oak barrels for over nine months before its distilled and bottled by the distillery. Great Lakes Distillery Seasonal Pumpkin Spirit is light yellow in color with the sweet aroma of clove and nutmeg and a dryish pumpkin flavor. A 750 mL bottle of Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit sells for around $40. The Beverage Testing Institute gives it a silver medal and rating of 89 points (Highly Recommended).
- Aroma: Hints of nutmeg and pumpkin pie spices.
- Appearance: Clear, orange-copper color, with a thick soft tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied with a soft-creamy mouthfeel.
- Taste: The light malt and caramel start turns to pumpkin sweetness, with tones of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in the background that transition to the finish.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The nutmeg lingers, even builds lightly on the palate with a slight spicy-pepper dryness.
Glassware: The tulip or snifter style of glass is great to accentuate the pumpkin and spice aromas. It's also a glass that encourages sipping -- slowing the enjoyment of the layers of flavor.
Pairs well with: Pumpkin beers goes well with sweet stews and meat dishes, but I like them best on their own as an appetizer or an after-dinner dessert.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Lakefront Pumpkin Lager has a pumpkin flavor a little reminiscent of candied yams or sweet potatoes, with spices that come out and linger lightly in the beer's finish. I like it because you definitely know you're drinking a pumpkin beer, but it's not over the top with sticky sweetness. This is one that retains the qualities of beer. If you really enjoy the pumpkin flavor, serve it at or near room temperature and you'll find a range of sweetness, cinnamon and nutmeg, with the creamy mouthfeel of pumpkin pie.