Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

October 8, 2008

Beer Diary:

Beer Goblins

Is this year’s batch of pumpkin-enhanced beers from the Midwest a trick or a treat?
by Jill Jaracz

Jill Jaracz is not a fruit, but she loves a good fruit beer. And wheats and wits. Catch her other writing at The Diva Platform, Prevention Magazine's Buzz Blogs, and Gapers Block.
Contact Jill»
In beer lingo, fall usually means it’s time for Oktoberfest beers. But walking through my local liquor store, I’m finding more and more pumpkin beer this year. Yes, it seems that this fruit beer is all the rage this fall, with a few Midwestern breweries jumping into the mix.

I had to wonder, though, if they were any good. I mean, places like Dogfish Head and Buffalo Bill’s have been putting this stuff out for years. You’d think the Midwest, home to the Pumpkin Capital of the World (that’s Morton, Illinois, if you’re wondering; they’re home to a Libby’s plant that produces over 80 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin), would be able to produce a stunner of a pumpkin beer.

I took four Midwestern offerings: Lakefront Pumpkin Lager, New Holland’s Ichabod, O’Fallon’s Pumpkin Ale, and Arcadia Ales’ Jaw-Jacker, and put them up against each other. (Michigan Brewing Company, I know you’ve got a pumpkin beer, but I wasn’t able to track it down in time. I’ll keep my eye out for it though.) Is the ale the optimal style for pumpkin, or is the lager a better choice? How do the spices help or hinder the flavor? And mostly, how does the pumpkin taste?

Ultimately, what I look for in a pumpkin beer is the feel of pumpkin pie. If you think about it, pumpkin doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own. It’s the nutmeg and cinnamon you add to your pie mixture that makes this the ultimate Thanksgiving dessert. Still, the pumpkin should add some robustness to the beer and help smooth out the taste, allowing the warm spices to come through at the finish.

First up I tried Lakefront. Lakefront claims that they’re the only brewery out there doing a pumpkin lager—the rest are all ales. They also use real pumpkin in the mash (score one for Lakefront) and let it lager for four weeks. Their spice mixture is a proprietary blend created for them by The Spice House, a fantastic spice shop with locations in the Chicago area and Milwaukee.

The pour on this lager was a deep amber with an orange tint to it. So far, so good. The beer itself looked pretty thick—not hazy, but you couldn’t see straight through it either. The nose was really spicy, with a lot of cinnamon on it, and to me it smelled a lot like spiced apple cider.

If you think about it, pumpkin doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own.
Taste-wise, this initially seemed like a light, yet full-bodied lager with a spice kick on the end. Then, on subsequent swallows, I really got a full feeling on the tongue that filled my entire palate with flavor. The taste was only slightly pumpkin-y, brought about mainly by the spices, but the overall effect was warm and soothing. I loved how the fruit meshed with the beer. The pumpkin brought out the best in the lager, and even though the pumpkin itself was subdued, it created a really nice flavor.

Next up was New Holland’s Ichabod. This ale is also brewed with real pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon, but perhaps naming it after the main character in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may not have been the brightest idea, because just as Ichabod Crane was believed to have been taken away by the Headless Horseman, this beer’s flavor was spirited away in a similar fashion.

This brew was the lightest and clearest of the four I poured, a sign to me that probably not much pumpkin got into the beer itself. It did have a nice large head and good lacing, but on the nose it smelled like a standard ale. I couldn’t detect any spice bouquet at all. The taste was similar: A full ale taste in the front of the mouth from the palate down to the tongue. I did sense a little bit of pumpkin and spice in the mix, but mostly this seemed more like a spiced ale than a pumpkin beer to me.

O’Fallon’s Pumpkin Ale came next, and like the others, it too had real pumpkin in the mash. Cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg were added when the beer was finished brewing. Unlike the Ichabod with its large head, the head on this beer wasn’t very pronounced, and its lacing disappeared pretty quickly. However, it looked the most like a pumpkin beer, with its dark orange color. The nose was full of spices, and I couldn’t help but wonder if adding them at the end just lent flavor to the nose.

However, the spices held their own. This beer was almost the most complex of the four, with the flavors subtly layered throughout the taste, but unfortunately, the beer itself was a bit watery and didn’t have that autumn robustness found in the Lakefront Pumpkin Lager. As with all the beers I tried, I let it warm up a bit to allow the flavors to open up. This trick only worked on the O’Fallon. The flavor thickened up a bit and the pumpkin came through for a really nice overall effect, although it was still slightly watery.

At Thanksgiving, does your mom (or grandma) plunk down three jars of spices and say, “Here’s your pumpkin pie?”
Finally I got to the Arcadia Jaw-Jacker. I had to admit I was a bit worried about this one, because word in the Beer Dorks office is that Eddie is really getting upset about their quality. And to that I say, Eddie, don’t even think about trying this one.

First off, apparently there’s no pumpkin. Arcadia says they take malted barley, a bit of wheat, a citrus hop, and then they add cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice “for a nice marriage of pumpkin pie and beer.” What? No pumpkin? At Thanksgiving, does your mom (or grandma) plunk down three jars of spices and say, “Here’s your pumpkin pie?” Hell, no! So don’t advertise your beer as having that pumpkin pie feel when there’s no pumpkin in it!

And maybe Arcadia shouldn’t even advertise their beer as beer, because this one was downright skunky. The color was a deep amber, about as close to brown as you can get. The nose smelled foul, and the taste was really off. Even the ale part of the beer seemed off. And the “marriage of pumpkin pie and beer”? Well, this marriage needs counseling, because neither partner is showing up. In order to taste any of the spices, I had to hold the beer in my mouth for several seconds, and then I got a whiff of nutmeg and allspice in my nose. That’s not a way to drink beer.

Overall, the Midwest is two-for-four in this style, and although none of them totally knocked my socks off, I did find some new fall favorites. If I was handing out mugs, I’d give four each to Lakefront and O’Fallon, two to New Holland, and one to Arcadia—and that mug is a pity mug. So be sure to grab a Lakefront Pumpkin Lager or O’Fallon Pumpkin Ale this fall and enjoy this autumn treat.

Happy anniversary, Lakefront Brewery!

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

Beer Dorks News

Want to know how healthy the craft beer industry is? As always, look to Portland. Craft pioneer Bridgeport announces sudden closure, adding to a growing list of PDX casualties.
Did Anheuser-Busch Chicago offer their shit beer to Cody Parkey before his missed field goal? Because that may explain why he "accidentally" biffed it.
Chicago now has the most breweries of any city in the country. Other things Chicago has the most of: murders, mobsters, and Ditkas.
Trying to spin it positive, BA releases end of year graphic. Only 5% growth in the craft sector when nearly 1000 new breweries opened? That's a collapse waiting to happen.
R.I.P. Tallgrass... another casualty as the regional/national craft beer market continues to get squeezed.
Wait... Constellation Brands cut all of the Ballast Point and Funky Buddha sales staff? They merged it with their Corona/Modelo staff?? We're SHOCKED!!!
Pizza Beer founder crying about failure of company, blames everyone else. Reminder, the beer tasted like vomit. Try having better ideas or making better products so you're not a failure.
It's Bud Light so doesn't really matter, but we expect this beer to be sitting around for awhile.
Indiana brewery to open with controversial beer names to "get the conversation going". Translation: taking advantage of serious issues for free publicity.
Hundreds of amazing beers in Wisconsin and the Cubs took back the one everyone drinks just because it exists and people have heard of it. How fitting...