It seems strange to be writing about autumn beers when the temperature is in the twenties and there are two inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground. At this very moment the snow continues to fall. But autumn it is! It’s only mid October, and while the trees on the west bank of the Mississippi River near my home have turned bright hues of orange and red, most of the trees are still sporting green leaves. We haven’t yet set the clocks back for the fall, an act that dooms those of us in the North Country to early afternoon darkness until spring. “It’s autumn, damn it!” I keep repeating to myself. “I didn’t miss my window. It isn’t too late to enjoy the great beers of fall.”
Autumn is an in-between time. There is a chill in the air, but it hasn’t yet turned brutally cold. The days are getting shorter, but it is still light at 4:00 PM. The leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, but the trees are not yet the gray skeletons that they become in the winter. Most of the time fall is a beautiful season, the season of harvest. So what makes a beer appropriate for fall? Well, slightly higher alcohol for one thing, just enough to take the edge off the chill air. A little color would be welcome, amber, red, orange, and brown to match the colors of the season. A bit of spice is always nice and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fall harvest, be it of hops or pumpkins.
Fall is a great time for special seasonal releases including wet hop beers and pumpkin ales. Hops are harvested in the fall. The bulk of the hops harvested in the world are dried and pressed onto bales or processed even further into pellets that resemble rabbit food. The majority of beers produced in the world use these dried and processed hops. However, during the harvest season many craft brewers take advantage of the opportunity to brew with fresh, unprocessed hops. For these beers, huge quantities of “wet” hop cones are added to the beer often within hours or even minutes of picking. Now I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the wet hop beers. In most cases I don’t feel that the use of fresh hops adds any significantly different character to the already hoppy American pale ales. What it does sometimes add is vegetal or grassy notes that I don’t find altogether pleasant. That said, these beers are immensely popular at this time of year so you should try a few examples and make up your own mind.
There are several locally brewed examples of wet hop beers to choose from. Surly Wet is available on tap right now in several locations. I found this to be a one-dimensional beer with a muddy hop character and excessive bitterness. While you are greeted with a beautiful, bright, citrusy hop punch at the beginning, the bitterness just hangs on in a way that is oddly mouth-coating and throat-burning. The somewhat sticky malt in the background is not quite enough to balance. One of the things that I love about Surly beers is the articulation of flavors. Each flavor seems to stand apart while working together with the others to make a delightful whole. I missed this articulation of flavors in Wet. The boys at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater are releasing their Harvestör Ale at the Happy Gnome on October 25th. Harvestör is brewed with hops grown in Lift Bridge’s own hop garden. I haven’t tried this year’s batch, but my notes from last year indicate a big American IPA with somewhat sweet caramel malt, bright citrus hop flavor, and assertive bitterness. Brau Brothers Brewing from down in Lucan, MN also brews fresh-hop beers using their own hops, this year including a Fresh-hop Lager. Town Hall Brewpub in Minneapolis will be releasing their Fresh-hop 2009 tonight (October 12th).
If you want to try some non-local fresh hop beers there are many to choose from. Founders Brewing from Michigan recently released their Harvest Ale, available in four-packs at better liquor stores. Another regional example is the Heavy Handed IPA from Two Brothers Brewery outside of Chicago. Sierra Nevada releases a line of fresh hop beers every year including the Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale with hops from South America and this year’s Estate Ale, brewed with hops and barley grown on the brewery’s own land.
The other big fall seasonal beer is pumpkin ale. While I may not be a fan of the wet hop beers, I do love the pumpkin ales. Not some extreme invention of American craft brewers, pumpkin ale has been around at least since the early days of colonial America when thirsty colonists, lacking barley which is not native to the eastern US, needed an alternative source of sugar for making beer. Pumpkin beers are usually amber-colored ales with generous amounts of caramel malt, relatively low levels of hop bitterness and flavor, and aromatic pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. The best of them will display at least some character from the squash, although some are more pumpkin pie spice beers than actual pumpkin beers.
I have made it a mission to discover the essential pumpkin ale. My favorite is Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. This 9% ABV desert-in-a-bottle is rich and smooth with notes of buttered rum and cloves. The pumpkin fruit comes through loud and clear, complemented by overtones of hazelnut. If you can find this one, snatch it up. But good luck, it arrived on store shelves in mid September and sold out within days. There may still be a few bottles lurking around out there if you make some calls. My two other favorites are both Midwestern offerings that are not available in Minnesota. O’Fallon Brewing located outside of St. Louis and the St. Louis Brewing Company, who’s beer sells under the brand name Schlafly both make outstanding pumpkin beers. The O’Fallon offering is a low alcohol pumpkin session beer with surprising levels of great pumpkin and spice character. The Schlafly beer is bigger and richer with more caramel sweetness and alcohol warmth. For a locally brewed example look for Mummy Train from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. While I found this beer to be a bit over spiced, it does have nice pumpkin flavor and caramel malt. Mummy Train is only available on draft or in growlers purchased from the brewery.