We experienced a cold front this past week that lasted just long enough to remind us that we've entered the season intended to be autumn.
Although we don't get to enjoy well-defined seasons in Florida, we occasionally get a glimpse of what it would be like if we weren't trapped in a sweltering, perpetual summer for the majority of the year. And when these brief waves of pleasantly cool weather drift over the state, there are few things more enjoyable than sipping a hot chocolate, mulled wine, warm apple cider, or my preference, an autumn beer.
Brewing beers for the autumn months is an old tradition, but seasonal beers are gaining popularity in the U.S. at such a rate that the availability and variation on the different styles is unprecedented. There are a few notable takes on autumn beers, and as always, personal taste will dictate preference, but I strongly recommend picking up a few of these styles while they're still available. After all, winter beer season is coming soon …
Although the actual festival in Munich takes place between late September and early October, the style of beer that is commonly known as an Oktoberfest is thoroughly enjoyable throughout the autumn months. The style is more accurately called a Märzen — German for March, the month during which these beers are traditionally brewed. Before refrigeration, the summer heat made brewing nearly impossible, so brewers would brew during the spring and again in the fall.
The style is typically made with a heavy proportion of Munich malts, giving the finished product a rich, toasty flavor that goes perfectly with the cool weather. Ayinger, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, and Paulaner all make excellent Oktoberfest beers, and are relatively easy to find.
This is probably the first style many people think of when they think about autumnal beers. Some breweries use actual pumpkin, others simply use pumpkin pie spices. Whatever the method, the end result is usually rich, spicy and a little sweet. Variations are extreme between breweries because of different additions to the beer. I remember drinking a pumpkin ale at a brewpub years back that actually had nutmeg and cinnamon settled at the bottom of the pint when I finished it — it was fantastic. There are plenty of good pumpkin beers still out there this year, but they'll probably disappear soon; some of the better ones that I've seen in the area are brewed by Dogfish Head, Southern Tier, Weyerbacher and Samuel Adams.
Harvest/fresh hop ales
Some beer drinkers would prefer a hoppier beer in the fall, rather than the malty ales that generally prevail. A relatively modern tradition, the harvest ale is the beer analog to wine's beaujolais nouveau. When hops are harvested in the fall, some breweries make a run of beers using these fresh hops, rather than the dried ones that are typically used. The result is a hoppy, acidic beer that has what some describe as having a "wet," or "grassy" flavor.
Personally, I prefer the fresh hop flavor to many normal pale ales and IPAs. Sierra Nevada is one of the pioneers of the fresh hop movement, and their Southern Hemisphere, Northern Hemisphere and Estate ales are all great examples of the style. I've also seen Great Divide's Fresh Hop ale on draft at more than one Bay area establishment.
There are plenty of other beers that go well in the autumn, from rich porters to robust brown ales (Sierra Nevada's Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale comes to mind), many brewed specifically for the season. When the wind picks up and the days get a little shorter, the best advice I can give you is to ditch the lagers and wheat beers and pick up something that fits the season more nicely. Whether it's flavored with pumpkins or fresh alpha acids, layer up and pour a pint.