Fall must be right around the corner this year's pumpkin beers are already being released. "It's the seasonal creep -- breweries have been pushing out these beers earlier and earlier," says Mike Christensen, director of sales for Milwaukee Brewing Company. "As much as it feels crazy, the weather in Wisconsin is going to change dramatically soon and people's mindset begin to change."
With that in mind, the brewery has joined the fray with Sasquash, a beer made with pumpkin and sweet potatoes. It's a distinctive entry among these seasonal brews, complete with a fun back-story that starts with a yam roast on a sunny July day.
What is it? Sasquash from Milwaukee Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Style: Pumpkin beers are not generally considered a specific style because they vary greatly in how they are made. But they are typically grouped together in a nebulous category of vegetable and fruit beers. As a seasonal brew, their recipes often call for some of the same spices used in baking pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. The base beer from in Sasquash is a standard American porter, and is made with both pumpkin and sweet potato that are added to the mash along with the malts.
Background: While it's thought of as a pumpkin beer, Sasquash derives more of its flavor from roasted sweet potatoes. About 1,000 pounds were used to make two 80-barrel batches of the beer.
A huge pile of sweet potatoes were roasted and smoked on a large grill outside Milwaukee Brewing's front door back on July 24. It turned into a tailgating party, of sorts, complete with plenty of beer. "You stand out there and try not to pass out," laughs head brewer Robert Morton.
"It was a fun day -- we invited the public, opened up the brewery and tried to make an event out of it," notes Mike Christensen. "We were serving beer, and several of the brewers took turns cooking the sweet potatoes."
Actually, nearly two days of roasting were necessary in order to prepare enough sweet potatoes for making Sasquash. "It takes 8 to 10 hours of cooking to do enough sweet potatoes for just one-half batch," explains Christensen. Once charred and crusty on the outside and mushy on the inside, he chuckles, they are ready for the lauter tun. The wort is then filtered and transferred to a fermenter, where it remains for about two weeks. The pumpkin pie spices are mixed into a tea-like liquid that's added just before the beer is bottled.
Morton says a few years ago he discovered Jefferson Stout, a sweet potato beer made by Lazy Magnolia Brewing of Kiln, Mississippi. (Pumpkin beers and Lazy Magnolia co-founder Leslie Henderson are featured in the September 2014 edition of Brew Your Own magazine.) That experience inspired him to do something different than just another pumpkin beer.
"Everything that was out there was kind of boring, and we didn't want to jump into the same mold as everyone else," says Morton. "Sweet potatoes were a natural choice because they have flavor, and the roasting came about because of the practicality that made them more affordable than the canned stuff."
In addition to the sweet potatoes, Morton used 400 pounds of canned pumpkin for the two batches of beer, along with pie spices. "The pumpkin isn't roasted -- it's an unsweetened puree. and it gives the beer a richer creamy mouthfeel," says Morton. The background of the porter lends hints of chocolate and caramel flavors from the malts, meanwhile. "The pumpkin spice and dark malts are a really good combination," Morton adds. The beer is also lightly bittered with German Tettnanger hops.
Morton says that both sweet potato and pumpkin have small amounts of fermentable sugars that add to Sasquash's strength, which in this case ends at 5.6% ABV. It sells in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles for $7-$9.
This marks the third year Sasquash has been offered it as a fall seasonal. The brewery doubled its production for this run, and released it the last week of August. "It's the earliest we've had it out," notes Christensen, but it should remain available through October.
- Aroma: A light roastedness with hints of pumpkin spice.
- Appearance: Black with a ruby-red tint. A thick, soft brown head.
- Texture: Medium bodied, round and soft.
- Taste: The chocolate and dark malts of the porter are up front, before an assertive roastedness takes over. The pumpkin spices begin mid-way through the flavor and eventually really stand out in the finish.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Pumpkin pie spice and lingering roastedness.
Glassware: The tulip glass with its flared lip shows off the color of Sasquash, holds its soft brown head, and allows spicy aromas to jump from the beer.
Pairs well with: Sasquash is a very flavorful beer and one to best appreciate on its own. There's just lots of roastedness and pumpkin pie spices that becomes more evident as you leisurely sip one. I suggest it as an after dinner dessert beer.
Rating: Two Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: I was drawn to Sasquash a couple of years ago when it first appeared as a draft-only release at the Milwaukee Ale House, the companion brewpub to Milwaukee Brewing Company. After it joined the brewery's bottled seasonal line-up, I've searched for six-packs each fall in hopes of tasting this elusive and distinctive pumpkin brew, perhaps akin to tracking a mythical creature with a similar name. Besides, isn't the uniqueness of a beer made with roasted sweet potatoes good for at least a six-pack -- right?
I give Robert Morton credit -- building Sasquash upon the rich maltiness of a porter-style beer provides a nice foundation for the pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Yet this beer's flavor ultimately reflects how much roasting those sweet potatoes get, and how much pumpkin pie spices are added. Given that blending in these ingredients relies on the brewer's own tasting, it can lead to slight but noticeable differences in the beer from year-to-year.
This leaves the 2014 version of Sasquash with lots of roastedness and pumpkin spice. In the end, it's a little too assertive for my liking, because the smooth malts of the base beer get lost in the assertive grilled-burnt flavors of the sweet potatoes and lingering pumpkin pie spices. Those latter elements are strong enough that they create an impression of spicy holiday brews like those released around Christmas.
To be fair, this is a very popular seasonal beer for Milwaukee Brewing, especially among those who are believers in the squash. Pumpkin beers are cropping up more regularly this time of year, but Sasquash is a rarer find.