On Tap: Ready or Not, The Flavors of Fall Beers Have Arrived

It was the last week of July when I spotted the first arrivals, colored in the shades of sunset and suggesting that summer was ending.

I found myself getting angry. Why? Why do distributors have to push the fall beers so early! I’m not ready for pumpkin beers yet! What’s with the Oktoberfests?

That party is still two months away!

And so I ignored them. But now that Labor Day has passed and the evenings have turned brisk, I think I’m ready to indulge in the rich, toasted and spicy flavors of fall. The abundance and variety on display in beer aisles equals that seen in farmers markets. They include elegant märzens and chocolaty brown ales, wheat and rye and ... yes, pumpkin. I’m finally ready to enjoy them all. For whatever reason, the most prevalent seasonal style in autumn is also the most divisive. I know a lot of serious beer drinkers who loathe pumpkin beers, but they are extremely popular and often serve as a rare indulgence for people who don’t normally drink beer. I’m among the defenders of pumpkin beers, but only to a point. There are some great ones out there, but also some really bad ones.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Shipyard’s Pumpkinhead is so popular. It is thin-bodied and lacks any discernible pumpkin flavor.

The spice is over the top — it should be renamed “the cinnamon challenge” — but every year people guzzle this stuff down as though it were the nectar of the gods.

For a more balanced, richer and more complex alternative, I prefer Dogfish Head’s Punkin, which uses real pumpkin, brown sugar and judicious amounts of spice.

The 7 percent alcohol adds enough warmth to make it a nice beer for cool evenings. Also, Harpoon Brewery’s UFO Pumpkin took top prize in a blind tasting I participated in last year.

Lately, it seems more brewers have been exploring dark pumpkin beers, for which I am thankful. Roasted malts add hints of coffee that provide depth and balance to beers with a strong presence of clove, ginger, cinnamon and other spices. Red Hook Brewery in Portsmouth has a pumpkin porter and Harpoon just came out with a dark imperial pumpkin beer made with molasses. At 10.5 percent alcohol, Harpoon’s imperial pumpkin beer is a whopper, and I found the molasses to be a bit overdone, but it’s still worth exploring.

There is a world beyond these novelties, however, and it includes some really nice brown ales that are good any time of year, but particularly in the fall. Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler is a nutty ale with touches of chocolate and smoke. It has a firm bitterness that approaches the level of a pale ale, but the resulting balance in flavor and moderate alcohol make it very drinkable. Unlike a lot of pumpkin beers, you want to have more than one of these.

A new brewer down in Manchester named Candia Road has come out with a 9.5 percent alcohol Nut Brown Ale that I tried last Thursday when the evening chill arrived. The full-bodied malt-accented beer had a licorice flavor that was nice. The alcohol fumes were pretty hot and there was some fruitiness that I found distracting, but it’s worth trying and may improve with age.

Among my favorite discoveries this year is the Sebago Bonfire Rye. It’s great for fall, designed to be enjoyed during warm afternoons or cool nights. In style, it most closely resembles an emerging sub-style called “RyePA,” which combine the earthy and peppery rye grain with the aggressive hop bitterness and aroma of an India Pale Ale. The Maine-based brewers used four varieties of American hops that give the beer a resinous quality and citrus aromas, notably grapefruit. True to the name, it would be well enjoyed while sitting outside by a fire.

The Oktoberfest style, also called “märzen,” is just as ubiquitous as pumpkin beers, though probably more deserving of serious attention. Also, like pumpkin, it’s an easy style to foul up if brewers don’t know what they’re doing. When done well, these lagers are elegant, malty and smooth, with a semi-dry finish that leaves you craving another sip. German versions tend to be lighter in color while American brewers seem to make theirs a deep amber and orange.

I don’t mind the color difference, but American brewers often go wrong when they try to cheat with the fermentation technique. Some use an ale yeast and ferment the beer at cooler temperatures. The advantage is that ale yeast works faster than lager yeast, which ferments in the 40- to 50-degree range and can take months longer to produce. Unfortunately, ale yeasts can put out fruity aromas that detract from the toasted bread aromas in märzens, while a good lager yeast is clean and gets out of the way.

The German brewers Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr both offer classic examples of an Oktoberfest märzen. The “Festbier” from Pennsylvania- based Victory Brewing Co. is among the better American versions, a slightly sweet and quite drinkable take on the style. Samuel Adams and Otter Creek also make decent versions. And for the budget-conscious, check out Narragansett “Fest Lager.” It comes in sixers of tall, pint-sized cans sold for less than many craft beer bottles, but holds up against its pricier competitors.

’Gansett’s burnished orange cans are the color of ripe pumpkins in October. It’s not a color I find all that pleasant, and even consider depressing. But after Labor Day, I’m willing to embrace it as part of the season.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.