Now that autumn has hit us like a ton of falling leaves, the rush to pumpkin is everywhere. And as pumpkin food and drink items have gone from interesting novelty to bruising hegemon in the grocery store aisles in the past several years, brewers have tried to keep up, with more and more of them offering pumpkin beer. But the reality is that consumers can drink only so much pumpkin.
I enjoy Southern Tier’s stellar Pumking as much as the next beer geek, but there’s a whole world of interesting and complex fall beers hiding behind cases of black-and-orange-labeled bottles at your neighborhood beer store. So when you’ve tired of pumpkin in all its liquid forms, consider these styles until winter.
1. Brown Ale: Too dark for summer, not quite dark enough for winter, brown ales, with their full, roasty, nutty flavors, find a sweet spot on your beer calendar in early fall. Bell’s Best Brown (Kalamazoo, Michigan) is a classic true-to-style brown ale that Midwesterners and former Midwesterners like me look forward to each year. For more liberal interpretations, Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale (Milton, Delaware) will satisfy hopheads and Cigar City’s Cubano–Style Espresso Brown (Tampa, Florida) takes the style to a darker, smokier place with the addition of espresso beans and chicory.
2. Fresh or Wet Hop Ale: Fresh or wet hop ales (sometimes called harvest ales) have been on the rise in recent years among locavores and beer geeks, prized for their insistence on freshness and extremely short shelf lives. You’ll find them only during a brief window in early fall, just after the summer harvest; they’re basically the beer equivalent of farm-to-table fare. These beers, typically hoppy, medium-bodied ales in the mold of an IPA, are brewed with hops picked fresh from the vine (as opposed to dried hop pellets). They’re tossed into the boil kettle sometimes within hours of picking, lending the brew even more of the hop plant’s flavor and aroma without additional bitterness. Though many major breweries put forth tasty fresh hop beers, Founders’ Harvest Ale (Grand Rapids, Michigan) and Deschutes’ Chasin’ Freshies IPA (Bend, Oregon) are two of the more notable lupulin monsters out there.
3. Imperial Red Ales: Hoppy like an IPA, but balanced by a maltier backbone, Imperial Reds, pouring the color of an autumn maple leaf, are a fitting transition beer for those in-between days in early October. A more recent invention of American brewers looking to “imperialize” every beer in the style guide, you’ll find excellent examples of the style in Oskar Blues’ G’Knight (Longmont, Colorado) and Sierra Nevada’s Flipside Red IPA (Chico, California).
4. Saison: Originally brewed in cooler months and corked in the summer, the saison claims humble roots in the agrarian countryside of southern Belgium, where it was brewed by and for farmers. Spicy, floral and distinctive fresh–cut grass esters characterize the style. Today’s saisons, particularly those brewed in the US, utilize a yeast strain that stands up better to heat, allowing them to be brewed later in the year, meaning that you can enjoy them at their freshest even as we transition from summer to fall. Belgium’s Saison Dupont defines the style, but Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (Kansas City, Missouri) is about as good of an interpretation of the saison style as you’ll find anywhere.
5. Barleywine (Aged): Big, chewy, malty and hoppy, these high-strength beers are excellent when consumed fresh in the late winter months. However, if you had the foresight to put one in your cellar last winter, try cracking it open in the fall when it’s had several months to mature. There is some debate among brewers and beer geeks as to whether aging barleywine is appropriate, but it really just comes down to taste preference. After aging, you’ll notice the heat from the alcohol has mellowed, and that the aggressive hop nose has taken a backseat to the sweeter caramel malt base. Avery’s Hog Heaven (Boulder, Colorado) or AleSmith’s Old Numbskull (San Diego) are excellent candidates to put on the shelf.
6. Specialty Beers: Of course, unpredictable weather makes for somewhat unpredictable brewing, but thankfully, brewers have responded by crafting some predictably delicious seasonal favorites that resist categorization. Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Noire Dark Farmhouse Ale (Dexter, Michigan) is a paradoxical beer with dark, rich malt and a near-sour finish. If you’re thirsty for something with more traditional fall flavors, The Bruery’s Autumn Maple (Placentia, California) is loaded with actual sweet yams and the familiar combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and yes, maple. Like your grandmother’s Thanksgiving recipe, minus the marshmallows.