Finding great fall beer — without the P-word
How do you mark the change of seasons into fall? Do you order pumpkin-spiced lattés and put your favorite sweater back on? Or do you curse every time you see a new pumpkin-flavored product cross your path?
Many of my beer-drinking friends grumble about this time of year because the choices tend to be dominated by artificially flavored ales. But I embrace autumn as a time to discover new beers and styles that complement the season. There are plenty of entry points that don’t involve pumpkins or spices at all.
The advent of autumn typically heralds the arrival of more malt-forward beers, those with notes of caramel, biscuit and hearty breads. Sometimes these beers are spiced, but many of the original styles brewed for fall eschew any added ingredients — a throwback to an old German law that prohibited the addition of adjuncts in beer for the sake of purity. Modern American craft brewers, however, often take full advantage of the freedom and creativity available to them, and have come up with their own special brews to meet the tastes of this time of year.
For those reluctant to give up their summer obsession with hops, it’s possible to ease into the transition with Sebago Brewing Company’s Bonfire Rye. This rye-based brew has a notable hop presence on top of an earthy, malted backbone and a crisp finish. The rye also gives it a slightly more substantial mouth feel, which can be missing in similar seasonals. Bonfire Rye avoids becoming too sweet or too malty, yet still reminds you that the days are shortening and the leaves are changing colors. This year marks its debut in cans, and Bonfire Rye is now widely available in Maine.
If you’re into the Belgian styles or got hooked on saisons in the spring, seek out one of Rising Tide’s seasonal Entrepôt saisons. The one for autumn, named “d’automne,” deftly merges style and seasonality. This dark orange beer has an aroma that reminds me of pepper, oranges and grains, like a subtle fall potpourri. The taste is slightly fruity, with some peppery saison bites coming in at the end of each sip.
For those who are more in the traditionalist camp, looking for a true Oktoberfest (Märzen) lager, you could track down the imports or you could check out Sierra Nevada’s Oktoberfest, which is new this year. As part of an annual effort to collaborate with German brewers, Sierra Nevada’s team worked with brewers from Brauhaus Riegele to make as authentic an Oktoberfest as possible. It hits all the right notes, and blows most of the domestically brewed Oktoberfests out of the water. (Apparently I’m not alone in this opinion; Sierra’s Oktoberfest is currently the top-rated Märzen on the beer-rating website Beer Advocate.)
Another worthy fall beer from out of state (New Hampshire, in this case) is Henniker Brewing Company’s Hometown Double Brown. Henniker started distributing in Maine earlier this year, and their high-quality beers have been catching my attention. This one is a special release, and is without exaggeration one of the best brown ales I’ve ever had. It somehow manages to taste robust without being heavy, and has a slightly sweet but well balanced flavor. Look for it in 22 oz. bottles featuring a picture of a covered bridge and fall foliage. My only regret about this beer is that it doesn’t come in smaller bottles; otherwise it would have a place among my regular refrigerator stock.
Fall also marks the return of Bissell Brothers’ Bucolia, which is slightly different than last year’s version due to a change-up in the yeast. Bucolia is billed as an amber ale, but its color is closer to brown and its taste is hard to categorize. The aroma is all hops, and really a delight to experience. The taste, like most Bissell Brothers beers, is very hop-forward, but this one’s grain bill beefs up the back end with some malts. It tastes stronger than its ABV, which is under 6 percent.
Amber ales, brown ales, Märzen, rye beer, porters and German altbier can all be a good fit for fall. When in doubt this time of year, I just order something that matches the color of the leaves.