Photo by Chris Casella

Beer School

If you’ve just started dabbling in craft beer, the odds are pretty good that pumpkin brews are catching your eye.

You’re wondering if they’re worthwhile and which ones you should avoid. Well, Sonny, you’re going to have to do like the rest of us and figure that out on your own because today’s class is for people who have been there and done that. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of, so pay your dues and suck down a pint or two of fermented squash pulp. Run along now.

So, how does one approach the season without coating one’s tongue with spice-laden Munich malts? Well, that’s a tough question. Most brewers feel the need to crank out a pumpkin beer, or at least a weak Marzen for Oktoberfest. Granted, it’s a tough season to capture in a beer, but there are some alternatives:

Sierra Nevada Flipside is a red IPA, which is to say that the chaps from Chico took the notion of a red ale and packed it with Sierra Nevada’s signature hop sensibilities. The result is a surprisingly complex beer that balances that piney hop aroma with slight hints of caramelized sugar imparted by the ruddy malts. Sierra Nevada sometimes gets overlooked because they’ve been around for a long time, but they still make great beer, and this is proof that they can be creative when they feel frisky. To me, this is autumn in a glass.

American strong ale is a classification of beer that includes Stone’s Arrogant Bastard and Great Lakes’ seasonal Nosferatu. Both are outstanding beers, but you can support some really cool local people if you look for this old-school brew at Seventh Son. The American Strong Ale is a perfect representation of a style that has, quite simply, run amok. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s good to see a new brewer pay homage to a classic. Not too hoppy, not too malty, with just enough booziness to take the edge off that nipple-tweaking breeze. You’ll find Seventh Son in four packs of 16-ounce cans in limited supply around town, or you can hit them up at the brewery.

Brown Ales generally don’t do well for most brewers. American beer drinkers like things big and hoppy, while brown ales are light and malty. It’s a tough niche, but somehow Bell’s Brewery managed to figure it out. Bell’s Best Brown has that toasted chestnut aroma, and plenty of residual sugar, but hefty doses of carefully selected hops keeps this beer from tasting like a soft drink.

Hops dominate the American craft brew landscape. While European beers take advantage of nuances in malts, the American consumer loves the flowers of the humulus lupulus plant. That’s paved the way for a growing seasonal niche that takes advantage of fresh hops. You see, hops are normally dried immediately after harvesting, but if you move fast you can capture some of the magic that gets lost in the process. “Wet” hops are only available for a short period of time – in the fall, when hops are harvested. The window of opportunity is small since fresh-picked hops can get nasty in a hurry. You either have to get them in a brew or dry them out for use throughout the year. Wet hops have notes that are characterized as grassy and floral, but because they begin to compost immediately after being clipped from the vine, brewers need to source hops locally if they want to brew this style. As difficult as it is, the effort is worthwhile. There is no better way to celebrate the hop than to imbibe a wet hop ale.

Sierra Nevada led the way with this style by introducing Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale back in 1996, coordinating the boil with the hops en route via climate-controlled trucks. Now a lot of brewers are following suit, which has created a new classification of beer that can include a number of styles. Fresh- or wet-hoppped beers can be anything from a session pale ale to an imperial red. As long as the beer celebrates the herbaceous nature of the hop, you’ve got a winner.

In the east, Sixpoint Brewing Company also embraces the season with a wet hop offering that varies from year to year as the fresh hop is chosen by consumers. This year the delicious Mosaic hop takes the stage. Autumnation is difficult to define because it looks like an amber ale, but it’s a celebration of this important harvest so the flavor is distinctly hop forward.