Fall is Chris Fairchild's favorite season — for seasonal beer.
As the weather cools, beer takes on an amber glow. The lighter brews of summer, often infused with citrus flavors, are replaced with darker beers with slightly higher alcohol content and the aromas of the holiday season.
"It's probably the most exciting beer season,'' said Fairchild, who leads beer classes at Total Wine and Spirits in St. Petersburg. That's because of the sheer variety of beer and the growing popularity of a style unique to America: pumpkin.
In Florida, fall beers are driven more by the calendar than the weather. We could easily keep drinking summer seasonals until Christmas — but good luck finding them. Besides, the holiday is just about here.
"It's a good way to segue into fall, where you want a beer with a little more heft to it,'' says Joey Redner, owner of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa. "You see the Halloween decorations going up and you want to get in that mood.''
Autumn seasonals are dominated by Oktoberfest, or Maerzen, beer. Maerzen is German for March, traditionally the month when the beer is brewed and stored until fall. And it's this month that Munich's Oktoberfest, and its 6 million visitors, celebrates the liquid harvest.
Maerzen is a subcategory of lager, the style that dominates the U.S. mass market. These are typically crisp, malty refreshing beers. The Paulaner-Salvator-Thomasbrau (5.8 percent ABV) has a pleasant aroma, an amber color and a slightly sweet taste, while the Staatliches Hofbrauhaus (6.3 percent ABV) has a lighter color and a clean finish.
But easily the most distinctive flavor this time of year is pumpkin. Fairchild at Total Wine knows what you're thinking.
"Why would you put pumpkin in beer in the first place?'' Fairchild asked rhetorically during a recent beer class. The notion actually dates back to before the founding of the country, when barley was scarce and pumpkins plentiful. The best versions incorporate pumpkin in the brewing process, but many are simply spiced beers that evoke the aromas associated with pumpkin pie — cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg — with only a hint of pumpkin flavor.
Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, Calif., is considered the father of the modern pumpkin beer and still uses roasted pumpkins. It's not too sweet or spicy, and the pumpkin flavor really comes through, making it a good introductory pumpkin beer.
Pumpkin ale is so popular that even Anheuser-Busch has come out with its own version, Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale. Not much aroma, though, and lighter than most, fruitier, with a slight ginger flavor. Another popular choice is Shipyard's Pumpkinhead. A better choice is Southampton Publick House, with notes of nutmeg and vanilla, or Saranac, with a sweeter, more pumpkin-y flavor.
The most highly rated pumpkin ale on beeradvocate.com is Pumking by Southern Tier Brewing in Lakewood, N.Y. It is the closest you'll get to liquid pumpkin pie, with notes of vanilla and caramel, and underlying flavor of graham cracker. It's as if it were brewed with pie crust, and it brought oohs from the tasters at Fairchild's beer class. It's a favorite of Redner's, along with Cigar City's own Good Gourd. (Unfortunately, Good Gourd is draft-only and in limited supply, but Redner promises next year they'll bottle it.)
Another Redner fave is Punkin Ale (7 percent ABV) by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. Made with organic brown sugar and roasted pumpkin, it's hoppier, fruitier and less spicy than others.
For the truly ambitious, you could make it yourself, as Greg Rapp, 52, of Largo does. He brought a growler — a half-gallon jug — of it to Fairchild's class. Made with roasted pumpkin, allspice and coriander, the beer was declared the best of the night by the class after a taste.
Autumn seasonals are brewed in limited supplies, and by Thanksgiving they'll be replaced by darker, richer winter beers.
Contact Tom Scherberger at firstname.lastname@example.org.