Article By: Andy Crouch
FALL IN NEW ENGLAND can be a challenging time for beer drinkers. Ranging from the occasional blistering hot day to temperatures fast falling in the evenings, finding the right beer for the moment requires a wide range of flavorful offerings. The all-too-early release of Octoberfest beers in July to the onslaught of pumpkin beers – sometimes balances, sometimes overwhelming in their spice quotient – usually signal the start to the fall beer selling season. Whether fun, seasonal offerings with higher alcohol levels or more reserved and spicy rye beers, the fall drinking season requires a little bit of forethought to get it just right.
American brewers have a long history of brewing with pumpkins and squash. Early colonial recipes include pumpkin as an ingredient as a less expensive, local way to replace costly imported malt. Commonly released as a fall seasonal beer, Pumpkin Ales have grown so great in popularity that it seems like every local brewery produces one. The aroma and flavor of Pumpkin Beers vary widely depending upon the brewer’s aims. Some brewers add hand-cut or pureed pumpkins into the mash, while others employ a variety of spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. The resulting beers range in flavor from mild autumn delights to over-spiced, pumpkin pie nightmares. The best pumpkin beers, which can be very time consuming to brew, require a brewer’s steady hand in controlling the spice dial. When done right, the final products are some of the most enjoyable and widely anticipated seasonal releases of the year.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
alcohol content 7.O% ABV
You can work up a pretty good thirst building a machine that hurls pumpkins more than four thousand feet. Or at least that’s what the folks at Dogfish Head thought when they created their popular seasonal ale. Located near the site of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Contest, the brewery produced a pumpkin beer that you can enjoy while watching air compressors, catapults and trebuchets toss around this Halloween gourd. The Punkin Ale’s aroma is strongly of pumpkin and brown sugar. The base brown ale provides an underlying support structure for this pleasantly malty beer with caramel notes.
Southern Tier Brewing Company
Lakewood, New York
alcohol content 9.O% ABV
This big, bruising seasonal ale is brewed as an ode to Puca, a mythical creature of Celtic folklore who was said to take unsuspecting travelers for the ride of their lives. The beer pours a deep copper color with a sizable wheat colored head. The imperial pumpkin ale’s aroma is striking, mixing pie spices, brown sugar, mild citrus notes, and hints of graham crackers. Pumking’s fantastic flavor mimics its outstanding aromas, with brown sugar and caramel malts interplaying with vanilla, spices, and delightful pumpkin notes. At 9-percent alcohol, the beer’s strength is at times present in the flavor, though not overwhelming.
IMPERIAL PUMPKIN ALE
Weyerbacher Brewing Company
alcohol content 8.O% ABV
Make no mistake, Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale is a thoroughbred of a beer. The brewery is known for taking otherwise delicate fruit beers and juicing them up to powerhouse strength. The beer smells strongly of cinnamon and nutmeg, along with the somewhat unusual addition of cardamom, which gives it a chai tea character. A steady, toasted malt flavor pervades the beer, mixing with occasional caramel notes and the potpourri of spices. A wonderful imperialization of the standard pumpkin beer for your Halloween drinking pleasure.
BROTHER ADAM’S HONEY BRAGGET ALE
Atlantic Brewing Company
Bar Harbor, Maine
alcohol content 11.8% ABV
Produced only once a year, Atlantic’s Bragget Ale is a beer with few peers. The brewers use a simple malt and hop schedule but add 2OOO pounds of wildflower honey in the boil to create this special ale. Atlantic then cellars the beer for a year before bottling it. The resulting product is a complex mix of flavors, ranging from coconut and oak to passion fruit. Similar to a barley wine in presentation, the beer is lightly carbonated and at nearly 12 percent alcohol by volume, it remains best enjoyed as a sipping drink.
Allagash Brewing Company
alcohol content 9.5% ABV
From the only American brewery to create its own koelschip, a long, shallow and open fermenter in which fresh wort is exposed to wild yeast and microfauna in the local air through slats in the building’s walls. That is to say that Allagash invites the funk into its operation and the same can certainly be seen in its Interlude – its hazy yet brilliant orange hued wonder with streams of gentle bubbles rising up to a billowy off-white head. Fermented with farmhouse yeast, conditioned with Brettanomyces, and then aged in French Merlot and Sirah barrels, the aroma sings with strong and funky fruit character, woody and earthy at times, with some juicy apricot fruit notes tossed in for good measure. The flavor begins soft, with a slight pale and honey malt character, followed by dull fruit, then spiked by an intense tart and slightly sour element that injects wood, earth, and a vinous funk into the mix for a dry finish.
A staggeringly complex style that marries a host of different styles – from lightly wheaty witbiers to funky lambics and spicy triples –Saisons are an increasingly popular offering from American breweries looking to branch out from standard fare summer seasonal beers. Sometimes referred to as Farmhouse Ales, Saisons are light golden to deep amber in color, often bright but sometimes hazy with yeast, and possess a labyrinth of sophisticated aromatics including spicy yeast phenolics, herbal hops, dusty malt notes, light alcohol hints, and occasional tart or acidic traces. The flavor is correspondingly complex, with spicy, peppery and herbal notes blending together with a modest tart or acidic quality, a light bitterness fuses with decided citrus fruit qualities, all wrapped around a solid pilsner malt base. Despite its girth, about 5 to 8 percent alcohol, Saison remains eminently drinkable and even refreshing, all without sacrificing a hint of flavor.
Cooperstown, New York
alcohol content 7.7% ABV
This signature offering from Brewery Ommegang pours with a beautiful golden color and a big billowy head of foam. It possesses a litany of airy aromatic wonders, ranging from pale malt sweetness to minty touches, and a spicy character from the hops and yeast all atop a dry wheat base. The flavor is similarly dry in character, with a subtle mixture of wheat, a flash of pale malt sweetness, followed by a warming alcohol, hints of ripe fruit, and a light grassy quality that blends with the spicy yeast and hoppiness for a slightly bitter finish. Tightly effervescent and sharply structured, Hennepin sets the standard for American versions of the classic Saison style.
Saint Somewhere Brewing Company
Tarpon Springs, Florida
alcohol content 7.5% ABV
Pouring from a cork finished bottle, this Saison starts with a light golden color, slightly hazy, and with a sizable, clean white head. It offers a curious patchwork of mild spicy notes, with cinnamon, ginger and a touch of citrus fruit playing host. The medium-bodied beer continues the flavor parade of spice covered citrus fruit, with spicy caches of cinnamon, cardamom and allspice flavors, all nicely attenuated in a dry approach. A dry wheat base element brings order to the spice bazaar, with herbal qualities continuing to counteract the spicier elements.
RED SKY AT NIGHT
Clipper City Brewing Company
alcohol content 7.5% ABV
With a hazy golden hue and fluffy cast of white foam, this specialty offering in the brewery’s Heavy Seas line-up pours with an active mélange of citrus fruit, pale malt, a touch of phenolic spice, and considerable funky yeast character. In the glass, the beer turns crisp, with tones of lightly sweet pale malt followed by a mild phenolic spicy quality, citrus fruit and earthy hops. The medium-bodied experience renders a striking balance, allowing all elements to express themselves without allowing any one quality to overwhelm the palate.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales
alcohol content 4.5% ABV
Another in this creative Michigan’s brewery’s expanding arsenal of funky brands, this bottle-conditioned Saison pours with a cloudy golden hue with orange touches at the edges and a dense billowing pillow of equally cloudy foam. The bouquet possesses a deep peppery quality that melds with the spicy yeast and contributes a great deal of complexity, along with the orange citrus notes and herbal hop tones. The medium-bodied flavor starts with a toasted malt quality that quickly gives way to a range of fruits – from apple to white grapes and orange peel – along with a rinse of funky yeast flavor accompanied by a touch of acidity. The earthy and floral hops right the ship towards the end, leaving a lengthy and dry finish.
Continuing along the spice parallel, beers made with rye contain a characteristic and distinct peppery quality that is hard to mistake. Using a percentage of rye grain in the malt bill, brewers can achieve an unusual contrast to sweet malts across a broad range of styles. Rye beers can be made as either a lager or ale, the former resulting in a cleaner beer and the latter a fruitier one. Depending upon the amount used, the aromas can give off a sharp, spicy note that hints the nose like ground black pepper and the underlying grain aromas can range from fine to husky in nature. The flavor is piquant and often bitter with a spicy, peppery quality that dries the palate and should be mixed against a little underlying malt sweetness for balance. German-style Roggenbiers contain large proportions of rye in addition to wheat, resulting in grainy, spicy and Hefeweizen-like banana fruit esters all mixed together in a grainy, husky, and unusually phenolic experience.
Sixpoint Craft Ales
alcohol content 7.2.% ABV
Pouring with a deep, luminous, and hazy ruby orange tone and a cascading off-tan head, this Sixpoint offering starts with wild fruit notes, mixed with bready European malt stretches and followed by a deep spicy herbal quality from the rye malt. The mixture of sweeter toasted malt flavors and sharp, spicy rye notes is quite striking in the glass, calling into focus the value of contrasting elements. The spicy flavor tends to win out, with the malt contributing bready and even vanilla and caramel notes, along with a pronounced and sustained citrusy and bitter hop finish.
RAIL MAIL RYE
Willimantic Brewing Company
alcohol content 5.5% ABV
This tiny northeastern Connecticut brewpub specializes in hoppy beers and uses rye to impart spice and bitterness in several of them. Rail Mail Rye starts with a hazy amber-orange color and a modest white cap of foam, followed by a considerably earthy and funky aroma of bready malts and sharp rye, along with hints of citrus. The flavor corresponds with citrus and funky Belgian-style yeast gives another layer of character, all while a dried apricot fruit flavor mixed with a bready malt base.
Founders Brewing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan
alcohol content 6.6% ABV
This powerfully aromatic and iconic offering from Founders commences with a ruby-amber tone, a strong frothy head of beige foam, and a smack of earthy, zippy and zesty rye and hop elements mixed over a light citrus fruit quality, slight notes of cream, and grapefruit sweetness. The flavor immediately starts hoppy and bitter, with earthy points mixed in, followed by an herbal quality that is speared by a light, sweet and toasted malt base that hides far away from the battling forces of complex bitterness. Red’s Rye is a more challenging rye offering for those daring to try something new.
A FEW NIGHTCAPS
In the days before hops took control as the main vegetable ingredient in beer, European brewers used all methods of additions to flavor their beers. The primary selections included sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary, although others used heather, spruce and seaweed to create other unhopped beers. Brewers of gruit suggested that the beverage possessed mysterious and aphrodisiacal qualities and that it could stimulate the mind. Modern gruit proponents can regale you with conspiracy filled tales of how politicians and religious leaders feared their favored potion and lead in the mid-18OOs to the rise of hops as a flavoring and preservative agent in beer. They’ll even go so far as to suggest that hops work to blunt the libido, in a condition pleasantly referred to as Brewer’s Droop.
The Cambridge Brewing Company has a thing for vegetable beers. In lieu of hops, its Weekapaug Gruit uses sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary, as well as Scottish malts and oats. A hazy amber brown color, the beer’s herbal, perfumey nose is intriguing and continues in the dry flavor with the addition of light biscuity malt flavors. Cambridge also makes The Wind Cried Mari Heather Ale which is similar in color but smells of toasted malt and a mildly spicy mixture of cinnamon and allspice from the fresh heather plant – a smooth body of bready malt mixes with an herbal spiciness.
The tiny Amherst Brewing Company in western Massachusetts has managed to reel in several medals from the Great American Beer Festival for its popular Heather Ale. Using heather from Washington State in three times the amount of hops the brewer usually employs in his other beers, the resulting beer is impressively well-balanced and quite striking on the palate. Bouncing from a tongue-teasing minty flavor to an unexpected, yet pleasing sweet malt finish, the beer remains one of the most approachable and drinkable versions of the style.