America has spoken, and the message is clear: “pumpkin beer rules.” As inexplicable as that may seem, even traditional “macro brew” drinkers seem enthused about the seasonal beverage, as each year more breweries release their product earlier than ever. First to the shelf or tap means more sales, even if that in turn means drinking a traditionally autumnal beer in early August’s heat and humidity. Perhaps we as consumers have reached critical pumpkin beer mass.
Serious Eats did the hard work (http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2011/09/pumpkin-beers-colonial-necessity-to-seasonal-treat-beer-history-brewing.html), tracing pumpkin beer back to the 16th century. But really, the stuff that your adventurous mom or cool uncle drinks has more to do with nutmeg, clove, ginger, and cinnamon – pumpkin pie spices – than the fruit of our tastiest gourd. And while I have my personal favorite pumpkin beers (Uinta and Weyerbacher come to mind) I think we can do better during impending light jacket weather.
I stopped by the friendly Beer Market on Pittsburgh’s North Shore to sample six different fall beers, hoping to shed light on the wide variety of non-pumpkin beers available now-ish. This is but a small sampling – I’d encourage you to visit your friendly local pub or bottle shop and strike up a conversation with the barkeep or proprietor. “Fall beer” covers a wide range of flavors and styles, so you’re sure to find a new favorite without supporting the growing pumpkin beer arms race. Once things go nuclear (possibly by adding too much allspice) you’ll thank me.
Anderson Valley Fall Hornin’ – okay, so this is really a pumpkin ale that confused me with “fall” in its name. Pours a nice brown, mildly malty, with a little cinnamon and nutmeg flavor hanging around. Nothing to complain about other than the fact I’ve already failed at not drinking pumpkin beer (they’re everywhere!)
Long Trail Harvest – tasty, really smooth drinking ale. A little nutty with hints of coffee, this brown ale was brighter tasting than I was expecting. Low ABV and high drinkability could make this a go-to beer for chilly nights next a pile of burning leaves.
Ommegang Scythe and Sickle – a nice pale gold pour, this had a yeasty character and a general mouth feel I associate with Belgian-style beers. Full disclosure: Belgian beers give me a headache quickly, so this isn’t going to be my favorite style . But it’s a very easy drinking beer with notes of citrus, notably orange, and people seem to really dig it on fancy internet forums, so maybe give it a shot?
Left Hand Oktoberfest – happy to see Left Hand showing up locally. Starts off a wee bit sweet and malty, and finishes clean with some carbonation hanging around. Nice all around flavors – a little pepper, maybe a little apple? Tasty.
Victory Festbier – crisp, subtle and well-balanced. Almost too well balanced, because I have very little to say about this. I actually asked a friend to try it and tell me if my palate was ruined from all this sampling, but he agreed with me. That was a relief. This was tasty, but for the life of me I can’t tell you exactly what it tasted like.
Abita Octoberfest – I dug this. Big, sweet and malty, with flavors that linger on your tongue. If I said the effect was kind of like eating bowl of not overly sweet cereal only at 6.6% ABV and out of a pint glass, I’d be telling you exactly my reaction. I’m not sure this lager is the absolute best representation of a “fall beer,” but I can say I’ll drink it again. Soon.
BONUS – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Great Lakes’ Nosferatu, a red ale that’s one of my favorite fall beers. Malty, bitter, sweet and hoppy, it’s infinitely drinkable and delicious. Which is a problem, ‘cause it’s 8% ABV and only available for a few weeks. Enjoy it while it lasts!