It's the time of year when jolly orange gourds start appearing on steps and porches. But pumpkins are not just for jack-o-lanterns. Stop by your favorite beer shelves, and you'll find pumpkins in the six-packs. The Great Dane brewpubs in Madison offer a pumpkin beer, as does Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee. Even the Stevens Point Brewery turned one out this fall. My choice when it comes to pumpkin pie in a pint glass, though, comes from Tyranena Brewing.
What is it? Painted Ladies pumpkin ale from Tyranena Brewing Company of Lake Mills.
Style: Pumpkin beers vary in flavor and in how they are made. Most commonly begin as ales, though they can also be brewed as lagers, such as by Lakefront. While pumpkin beers are not an accepted style on their own, judging entities such as the World Beer Cup place them within a sub-category of vegetable and fruit beers.
As one might expect, pumpkin beers are most often released in the fall. Recipes may call for some of the same spices you find in pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. They are usually slightly sweet and/or spicy, with almost no bitterness. Brewers sometimes use real pumpkins when making these beers, but that requires extra steps in cooking the pumpkins ahead of time, as well as extensive challenges associated with filtering such beer.
Background: Painted Ladies is made with processed canned pumpkin, the kind you find in a grocery store. Tyranena brewmaster Rob Larson says he uses about 240 pounds of canned pumpkin meat, to which he adds cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. All that pumpkin means it takes nearly twice the time to transfer and filter the beer than what he considers average for his beers.
This year Larson made three 24-barrel batches. The Madison area received a large amount of Painted Ladies, which is nearing the end of its seasonal run. The brewery reports that it's been exceptionally popular in cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis, where supplies are already gone.
Larson says he named his pumpkin ale as a tribute to the renaissance of downtown Lake Mills and the restoration of many Victorian storefronts. (Colorful Victorian houses are referred to as painted ladies.) Painted Ladies is found on a limited number of local taps, including at the brewery itself, but is found more readily in six-packs for around $7-$8.
- Aroma: Spicy, hints of pumpkin.
- Appearance: Brilliant bronze with a tan, marbled head.
- Texture: Medium, bubbly, with some softness.
- Taste: Starts with a firm, malty flavor, but the pumpkin is clearly evident.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Crisp, spicy, slightly dry.
Glassware: Painted Ladies has an assertive spicy aroma that will stand up in a traditional bar pint, but a tulip glass will focus the beer's nose and encourage sipping. Drink this beer slowly to allow warming, thereby bringing out the softer, sweeter tones.
Pairs well with: Pumpkin beer goes well with stews and standard vegetable soups, but for me they are best enjoyed on their own to fully appreciate the clove, cinnamon and ginger tones. Try a Painted Ladies as a pre-dinner appetizer.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Pumpkin beers are an acquired taste. I admit I don't usually seek them out. However, they can be a fun seasonal when done well -- if there's a spicy pumpkin flavor that doesn't overwhelm the overall beer character. Tyranena's Painted Ladies is my pick of this fall's gourd-based brews. I like it for its solid tones of cinnamon and nutmeg, which still allow a basic malty ale to come through. While its pumpkin aroma is a bit timid, the flavor is assertive, but not demanding -- making this beer a Halloween treat.