Starting before fall began, we witnessed a wave of pumpkin ales flooding store shelves unlike any previous year. If you are a fan of the spiced, malty, uniquely-American brew, then this is a good year for you. I am a fan myself, and I think that a well-made pumpkin ale can really shine. This week I am very proud to unveil my own pumpkin ale, Jake o’ Lantern. It is actually one of my favorite beers that I make.
So what makes a good pumpkin ale? This is pretty subjective. In my opinion, a good pumpkin ale is lightly spiced. The spice levels should be low enough so that it tastes good, and you want to have more than one. Also, the spices should not cover up the malty flavor of the beer. Like any beer made with fruit, spices, vegetables, or other non-traditional ingredients, the beer should be able to stand on its own without the extra ingredient. A good pumpkin ale is a good malty ale, with or without the spices.
I don’t like to sound negative, but all but a handful of pumpkin beers on the market are overspiced, and consequently, unbalanced. With a few exceptions, I have been pretty disappointed by most of the pumpkin ales I have tried. Again, taste is subjective, but I can’t help but feel that most people would prefer a properly balanced pumpkin ale.
When I use the word balanced, I refer to not just the level of spice but the way it changes the overall flavor of the beer. The reason for this is that spices, particularly cinnamon, have bittering properties. They can balance the beer in much the same way that hops can. For example, my pumpkin ale has an FG of 1.014, with a lot of caramel malt, but only 20 IBUs. Normally, such a beer would be a bit sweet, but the spices balance it out.
You may have heard that you don’t need to actually use pumpkin to make a pumpkin ale. This is true. Most of the signature flavor comes from spices, not pumpkin. However, using pumpkin definitely does add a bit to flavor and especially to aroma. Personally, I prefer fresh butternut squash. It is a lot easier to work with since it has fewer seeds, and adds a very nice flavor. I use about 3-5 pounds on a five gallon scale, which I cut up into small bits and then roast in the over for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. This caramelizes the squash, which greatly enhances its aroma and flavor. If you use pumpkin, make sure it is a variety used in baking. Only pie pumpkins have the right kind of flavor and consistency. If you use canned pumpkin, make sure to use rice hulls to prevent a stuck sparge. There is no risk of stuck sparge with fresh squash.
Even more important to the beer is the grain bill itself. A good pumpkin beer should be a good beer, period. An amber ale or porter are the most common base styles for a pumpkin ale, in both average and imperial strengths. I don’t have any experience using a porter, but personally, I would go for a smoother, less roasty porter with perhaps a small amount of smoked malt or a bit of amber malt for a smoky flavor. If you choose an amber ale, you could go a couple directions. You could use a base of Maris Otter malt, or a base of American two row and Munich malt. A 100% Vienna malt beer is another interesting option. A good amount of medium crystal malt and a smaller proportion of dark crystal is a good addition.
Here’s my recipe:
Batch Size (fermenter): 5.50 gal Bottling Volume: 5.50 gal Estimated OG: 1.048 SG Estimated Color: 13.3 SRM Estimated IBU: 20.4 IBUs Brewhouse Efficiency: 72.00 % Est Mash Efficiency: 75.3 % Boil Time: 60 Minutes Ingredients: ------------ Amt Name Type # %/IBU 7 lbs Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM) Grain 1 68.3 % 2 lbs Munich Malt - 10L (10.0 SRM) Grain 2 19.5 % 12.0 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt - 60L (60.0 SRM) Grain 3 7.3 % 8.0 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt -120L (120.0 SRM) Grain 4 4.9 % 1.00 oz Goldings, East Kent [5.80 %] - Boil 60.0 Hop 5 20.4 IBUs 1.0 pkg London ESB Ale (Wyeast Labs #1968) [124. Yeast 6 - Mash Schedule: Single Infusion, Medium Body, Batch Sparge
Add at end of boil: 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/8 tsp ground allspice, 1/8 tsp nutmeg, 1/8 tsp ground ginger