For the month of October, I’ve been cooking up something special. I’ve been calling on some fellow beer-loving friends from land, sea and air (okay, from all over the world. Still impressive, but I don’t get to make dramatic hand gestures and you don’t get to read a post by a dolphin). So for the next couple of weeks you folks will be getting a few posts from an assortment of people (myself included) talking about the Autumn beers of their region that they love.
First up is Alan Tyson from the land of Amerika. Alan’s a reader and a good friend. He’s also a writer who went above and beyond by writing a whole post on two beers that he loves. Have fun and be nice to him.
Don’t get me wrong – few things in this life are better than having a pint of Guinness with your friends in your favorite warm, dry pub while a spring storm hammers against the windows; or sitting on the porch with an ice-cold lager (or my personal favorite, a lager/7up shandy), spitting out sunflower seed shells and working on your sandal-tan; or curling up with a big bottle of something dark, sweet, warm and brain-numbing in front of the fire with that special someone… or, if you’re me, the dog.
Beer can, and should, be enjoyed at any time of the year. But beer, in this writer’s opinion, is as essential a part of autumn as falling leaves, school bells ringing for the first time in months, and slipping on thick jeans, a sweater and a jacket, and taking a long walk down the streets at night. Autumn is when things start to slow down, when everything living lets out a big sigh of relief, when the year’s end seems like a concrete, rather than nebulous, point. Beer is the perfect liquid companion for this time: for example, nothing beats cracking open a bottle in the same motion as clicking on the TV to watch the game (for most of my countrymen the game is first football games, but for me it’s the tail end of baseball season, even if my beloved Red Sox didn’t do so well this year). The first thing I reach for when I come in from raking the leaves is a room-temp brown ale or stout, to warm me back up, and this particular autumn will always have a special place in my heart, because a few worthy compatriots and I have thrown in our respective chips and are going to take our first attempts at home brewing.
Yes, friends and neighbors, I think autumn is beer time in ways none of the other seasons can quite match. The question then, of course, is which beer should you have with you at all times in this most glorious of seasons? I’m a big proponent of “as many as possible!” for the answer, but my esteemed host has only so much patience for loquacious Americans, so I shall limit my suggestions to my two favorite autumnal brews.
The first of these is Dogfish Head’s Punkin’ Ale, brewed in coastal Delaware. Dogfish is the poster child of craft breweries, and I’m not just saying that because they are, in a lot of ways, my local brewery (a short jaunt up I-95 from where I live, and you’re practically there) – they go out of their way to make beer that doesn’t quite taste like anything else, and Punkin’ is no different. Now, the autumn season is awash in pumpkin ales (and even a few pumpkin lagers, rumor tells me, though I confess that the idea doesn’t really sit that well with me), and there are plenty of amazing ones out there, but Punkin’ still manages to stands out as something completely different. It’s not actually my favorite pumpkin beer: that honor goes to O’Fallon Brewery’s simply-named Pumpkin. However, their distribution isn’t as widespread as Dogfish Head, and I don’t want to just tell all you fine people about a beer you’d be hard-pressed to track down (if you live in the middle section of the Mississippi River Valley, you’re in luck, and I highly recommend the O’Fallon beer), and even though I like Pumpkin better, I do believe that Punkin’ is a better-made brew, and certainly a more complex one.
First things first – Punkin’ is made by taking a pretty basic brown ale recipe (if I ignore all the beer’s other flavors, which is hard, I suppose I’d compare it to a smoother Newcastle), and then adding to it real roasted pumpkin, brown sugar (I presume as part of the bottling process, though don’t hold me to that), allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, which are your pretty standard pumpkin beer spices. It comes in at 7% alcohol by volume, which is a pretty heady amount if you’re not used to it, and even if you are, three of these guys will get you feeellliiiinng preeeettyyy meeeeeelllooooow real quick. It’s probably a good thing they’re usually sold in four-packs.
Right off the bat, you can taste the cinnamon and nutmeg, so strong you can almost chew it. The distinctive warming flavor of a brown ale is next. Something I should mention right now: this is a beer you really don’t need to stick in the fridge any longer than twenty minutes or so, and I don’t even do that. Straight out of the case at room temperature, this beer is ready to go, and indeed chilling it will dull a lot of the really great flavors, and it will absolutely kill the aroma, which is all roasted pumpkin.
That’s the thing, too: Punkin’s pumpkin (say that ten times fast) is much more a treat for the nose than it is for the mouth – there’s not a whole lot of pumpkin or pumpkin pie flavor, so much as there’s “Thanksgiving Dinner” flavor. One of my brewing buddies exclaimed halfway through his first bottle of Punkin’ “and the snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”, referencing, of course, the entire-meal-in-a-stick-of-gum from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. There’s hints of roasted turkey, and even steamed vegetables, which is very strange to taste in a beer, but the folks I’ve shared it with all agree that it’s not a bad taste, just unusual. This would, in fact, be a perfect beer to have with that big autumnal family gathering, because the flavors just line up so perfectly. Of course, its festive flavor and high alcohol content also make it one hell of a party beer – bring it to your next gathering (especially if you know everyone else is bringing yellow fizzy beer), and be prepared to make a lot of new friends, thanks to your delicious and dizzying contribution!
In short, Punkin’ is a well-crafted and tasty spin on an old autumn classic, and though its differences set it apart from more traditional pumpkin beers, they also set it above them for the same reasons.
Second, we have Hoptober, from the New Belgium Brewing Company out of Fort Collins, Colorado. The best way I can describe Hoptober is this: beer, with extra beer, with a side dish of beer and beer for desert. Let me explain – as New Belgium (the same company that makes Fat Tire, one of the most popular craft beers in the United States, and one of my first loves) proudly proclaims on the side of their bottle, this thing is just absolutely packed with as many things that makes beer… well, beer, as humanly possible.
Take the malts, for example – it’s a balanced mix of pale malt, wheat malt, rye, and oats. Now, I am an absolute malt fanatic, and I love thinking about how different grains will interact to create new flavors, and even to me this is a hell of an audacious mix. In the wrong hands, this would end up tasting probably like a whole lot of nothing, a strange, homogenous mix that doesn’t actually have any of the characteristics of any of these malts. But these aren’t the wrong hands, they’re New Belgium’s hands, and what you end up with is something that has all the crispness of a pale ale and all the creamy smoothness of an oatmeal stout, and the texture and mouthfeel comes in at least three waves that I could taste. This is definitely a beer where you want to let a few seconds pass between sips – you’ll be glad you did.
Now, we get to the beer’s namesake, it’s hop content. I’ll admit, I was a little scared when I read what all went into this thing – I’m not, in general, a hophead, and while I do love the scent and flavor of a well-balanced hoppy beer (I’m thinking here of Stone Brewery’s Arrogant Bastard or Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde), I do have my threshold, and the following ingredients looked like they might surpass it. Hoptober is made with no less than five varieties of hops, these being Centennial, Cascade, Sterling, Williamette, and Glacier. I’m not sure when during the process they were added, or in what amounts, though I’d bet my bottom dollar that the Cascade came in towards the end, as that’s the most prominent hop aroma in the beer.
What I was forgetting is that even though there are many varieties of hops used, that doesn’t mean that NBBC made the mistake of using massive amounts of each. The hops are balanced, layered, and ultimately they each contribute a little something of their own to the beer. As previously stated, the aroma is mostly Cascade (at least to my nose), but the flavor is a wonderful mix of floral and spicy notes, which just permeate the thick, malty character of the beer, so that this is the drinking equivalent of eating a 9-grain, just-came-out-of-the-oven, foot-thick loaf of delicious bread. This seems to be a thing with New Belgium, as I’ve heard their Fate Tire described, accurately I think, as being like drinking a warm, buttery biscuit or English muffin (one wonders what they call them in England).
Something very impressive about this beer is how little the flavor changes with the temperature. I drank a 40 oz. bottle just as it came out of the fridge, and it took me until it was nicely warmed up to room temperature to finish it, and I really couldn’t tell you which end of the spectrum I prefer. This beer really doesn’t care how ice-cold or hand-warm it is, it’s still gonna taste just as good.
I recommend Hoptober all by itself, or if you are going to have it with food, have it with a thick-cut slice of warm multigrain or black bread with a little butter on it. The flavors here really stand by themselves, and they really need to. On the other hand, I can see a multitude of cooking uses for this beer – using this in beer bread is what comes to mind immediately, but I can see this going into pie crust and gravy to make the wheatiest, most healthsome-tasting meat and veggies pie you’ve ever had, and a true autumn treat at that!
Yes, friends, autumn is our season, and we should make the most of it with the best beer we can get our hands on. These two are my personal picks, but as I said at the beginning, there are whole lakes of other beers to try, many of them seasonal brews that are only available during this time of the year. Read on for more!