Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Autumn arrives with abundance — the fall harvest, colorful foliage and pumpkin beer, for instance. And with each passing season, the pumpkin beer patch continues to grow.

With all the major brands, craft brewers and brewpubs to consider, there’s no shortage of varieties. Beeradvocate.com recently published its list of the top 50 pumpkin beers, a clear indicator that the seasonal pints are multiplying at an impressive pace.

Skeptics who believe pumpkin beer is simply a seasonal novelty could use a history lesson. Brewers have been making pumpkin beer since Colonial times, when the native North American gourd was thought to have medicinal qualities and was often more plentiful than the grain required to brew more traditional varieties of beer. Some early beer recipes replaced the grain entirely with the meat of the pumpkin.

An early American folk song, written in 1643, contains the following lyrics:

If barley be wanting to make into malt,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-          tree chips.

For those who enjoy variety, character and a little exotic seasoning in their brews, pumpkin beer is the perfect libation for a cool fall night. But if you want some, you’d better hurry! The first brands began hitting the shelves in late August and some popular varieties already are out of stock. 

Here are some brews that might be new to Wisconsin drinkers.

Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery consistently receives high marks for its Pumpkin Lager, which is based on one of Thomas Jefferson’s original recipes. Joining this year’s lineup is Lakefront Pumpkin Imperial, a high-octane beer brewed with spices and vanilla and aged in oak brandy barrels. At 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, Imperial is potent. The high alcohol level dominates the flavor profile, obscuring some of the beer’s subtler elements. With that much alcohol, subtle is not what this beer is about.

Milwaukee Brewing Co. has joined the party this year with Sasquash Pumpkin Porter, a darkly spiced beer that combines specialty malts with 400 pounds of pumpkin and 300 pounds of sweet potatoes per batch. Pouring an almost black-brown with a caramel head at 5 percent ABV, the beer offers essences of cocoa and dark chocolate with light carbonation and an earthy quality from the root vegetables.

Speaking of porters, Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, Alaska, offers its first Alaskan Pumpkin Porter this year. At 7 percent ABV, the beer is brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar and spices. It pours a dark brown with a strong pumpkin-and-spice nose. Expect nutmeg, cloves and pumpkin on the palate, with a slightly dry character and pleasant mouthfeel.

Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, Washington, this year introduced Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter, a 5.8 percent ABV brew made with pumpkin, spice and maple syrup. None of those elements lead; rather, they combine in a brewhouse gestalt of balance and finesse in which the whole is truly better than the sum of its parts.

It stands to reason that the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. would produce very powerful beers, and Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale is no exception. At 10 percent ABV, this little darling pours with an orange-ish hue and flavor profile that’s long on cinnamon, along with hints of cloves and nutmeg. The pumpkin flavor comes through, but so does the alcohol in this not-for-the-faint-of-palate libation.

One of our favorites this season has been Wasatch Black o’ Lantern, a pumpkin stout produced by the Utah Brewers Cooperative in Salt Lake City. A blend of Wasatch Pumpkin Ale and Polygamy Porter (we are talking Utah, after all), the 6.5 percent ABV beer pours dark and spicy with an emphasis on nutmeg. Expect a medium-bodied beer with flavors of roasted malt and chocolate blended with pumpkin pie.

A lighter stout and an imperial that’s a little lower in alcohol, the Millstream Brewing Co,’s Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout, brewed in Amana, Iowa, is available only at Brennan’s Market (19000 W. Bluemound Road, Brookfield). At 7.6 percent ABV, it’s not quite imperial strength, and its dry stout character seems to be overbalanced by spices that give it an almost artificial sweetness. But the beer has earthy and roasty malt qualities that come to its rescue, turning it into a nice starter beer for those new to pumpkin brews.

Epic Brewing Co., another Salt Lake City brewer, has combined forces with DC Brau in Washington, D.C., to produce Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Brewed with 200 pounds of pumpkin, five spices and whole Madagascar vanilla beans, the rich, chocolaty porter weighs in at 8.6 percent ABV. Think chocolate pumpkin pie with whipped topping and an alcoholic bite.

Last year we took a real liking to Pumking, the imperial pumpkin ale from Southern Tier Brewing Co. in Lakewood, New York. This year we found a real friend in Southern Tier Warlock Pumpkin Imperial Stout. At 8.1 percent ABV, Warlock comes on strong, with its “stoutness” playing a supporting role to its roasty malt, pumpkin-forward profile. The huge pumpkin spice aroma, with notes of vanilla and gingerbread, follows through on the palate. If you have ever wondered what roasted pumpkin pie tastes like, this would be about as close as it comes.

Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate