Summer, for some reason, is not the season for interesting beer. Whether it’s because brewers are meteorologically distracted or consumers aren’t in the mood for anything fancy or remotely heavy, summer beers — with a few exceptions — rarely get more interesting than a crisp, citrusy white ale. Otherwise, it’s all lagers, pales and IPAs (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Come late summer and fall, though, brewers get to chin-scratching, and out come the spices, the extra malts, the long-forgotten flavors and novelties. And God bless them for that. It’s hard enough to accept that summer is over and cold weather has arrived. This new line of dark, interesting and often strange beers is our only consolation for the chilly days ahead.
Dining Out, Fall 2009
Nuthin' Fancy Both restaurants and customers are looking to get more casual
Tiny Little Explosions Some of the most incendiary dishes in the area come on small plates
Three Men and an Appetizer Jacob, Luke and Nick do apps at Gordy's and the Peacock Lounge
Three Women and a Breakfast Diner Leah, Tammy and Erika get their spoons greasy at Dolly's and the Top Notch Cafe
Bottles for Autumn Area chefs offer humble suggestions for what to quaff with your squash
Hop, Trip, Jump From late nostalgia to the depth of winter in 11 seasonal brews
Here, then, a tour of beers — all of them found in stores locally — to ease you into autumn.
Summer Drifter IPA (Portland)
I figured I’d start with one beer to remind me of the glories of summer. And damn if this thing didn’t nearly bring a tear to my eye. Sweet but not decadent, bitter but not bracing, this clean and wonderfully balanced IPA instantly evokes the glamour of summer. What a sad way to begin. I drank it in big gulps.
Oktoberfest Märzen (Munich)
The original autumn beer is the märzen, which, naturally, comes from the German word for “March.” Which actually makes some sense, as March was the end of the brewing season in Bavaria, summer being too warm to brew without risk of bacterial infection. Beer cooked up in March would be stored in caves to keep cool and then tapped come time for Oktoberfest. One sip of this and you’re in a Munich Bierhaus with a red nose and an army of festive, hosen-clad tourists and career drinkers. It’s bready, nutty, a little sour and the perfect complement to a salt-crusted pretzel.
Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen (Germany)
One of the other classic Oktoberfest biere (the third being from Hofbrauhaus), Spaten’s snootily named ur-märzen has been described as tasting like everything from cocoa powder to cornhusks. I’m not sure about that, but I know it goes down quickly and cleanly, with a lot of malty sweetness, a slight metallic tinge and a flavor that screams “fetch me another, St. Pauli Girl!”
LEFT HAND BREWING CO.
Oktoberfest Marzen Lager (Longmont, Colo.)
Back in the States, American brewers try to recall the Bavarian Oktoberfest style, but not always with the greatest results. Left Hand’s shot at this tastes a good bit like Spaten’s brew, but it has less of the good stuff (plummy, fruity flavor) and more of not-so-good (sourness, metallic-ness). Even further off, though, is…
Not only does this not really taste anything like the biere of Bavaria, but it’s not even a lager — it’s an ale. Then again, maybe the cheeky “Okto” name is an attempt to nod towards Germany without having to play by its strict Teutonic rules. It’s got a touch of fall to it (is that pine?), but it tastes like autumn in the Cascades, not the Black Forest. Citrusy, with floral hops and no real sign of that German spiciness, this is an impostor, but a tasty American one at that.
BITTER ROOT BREWING
Last in my line of Oktoberfest wannabes is this big 22-ouncer from Bitter Root, which is actually a lager but still doesn’t really taste like the real Deutschland deal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. Clean, a little spicy, and with a slightly funky tang in the finish, it’s not a bad compromise.
Hoptober Golden Ale (Fort Collins, Colo.)
Now this is a fall beer. More so even than the German märzen, which, as I noted, is really a spring beer aged until the fall. This one reeks of freshly harvested hops — in this case, the Centennial, Cascade, Sterling, Willamette and Glacier varieties. So rather than being sweet and mindlessly quaffable, it’s light and fruity and hop hop hoppy. The maltiness is light (with rye, oats and two types of wheat malt), there’s a carbonated bite, and the bitterness (somehow) never overpowers. Finally, a fall beer that tastes like the fruits of harvest!
O’Brien’s Harvest Ale (Seattle)
Whereas the Hoptober hops without being too bitter, this harvest ale from the formerly Colville- and Spokane-based brewer crosses the line. Even for a hop addict like me. Brutally bitter, with a roasty, nutty flavor and a reddish amber color, it has a lingering, tangy finish that leaves your tongue encased in drool.
Punkin Ale (Delaware)
You’ve got your German Oktoberfest-style lager. You’ve got your hop-happy harvest ale. The other major model for fall beers is the pumpkin beer — a strange brew that can often taste more, er, interesting than actually good. But if anybody can pull off both interesting and good, it’s Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, a Delaware-based brewer whose exceptionally odd ales — the Raison d’Etre, the chicory stout — are becoming increasingly available in the Northwest. The Punkin Ale is, surprisingly, not very pumpkiny. It’s there, but it’s subtle. When you swallow, though — that’s when you’re swimming in brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg. Exquisitely balanced, this is a great pumpkin beer for those who don’t particularly like pumpkin beers.
Night Owl Pumpkin Ale (Seattle)
And this is a pumpkin beer for those who adore them. Where Dogfish Head flirts with the idea of pumpkin, Elysian shoves your face in a Thanksgiving pie. They cram 150 pounds of pumpkin in each batch, plus green and roasted seeds and spices galore. Cinnamon, nutmeg, clover. There’s a taste right in the middle there that’s almost chocolatey, like malted milk balls. Probably not something you’d want to drink more than a pint of, but holy moly, that one pint will make you want to throw a sheet over your head and go scare the hell out of your neighbors. (In a ghostly way, not like a Klan-ish kind of way.)
Jewbelation Twelve (New York)
Though it seems way too early to think about winter beers (10 beers in, I’m just now getting comfy with fall), I had to try this one — a 12 percent, 22-ounce Golem of a beer that smells like horse feed and goes down like a bottle of cough syrup. Oily, viscous, dark as night and redolent of Brer Rabbit black strap, by the end of it, you know how those Bostonians must’ve felt in the last few seconds before drowning in molasses in 1919. Sweet, pungent, sour, overbearing. It’s so not time for this yet. But come January, when your car is stuck in the snow and school/work is canceled, snowshoe to Huckleberry’s and drown your winter blues in this burly mess of a beer.
Local brewers are getting into the seasonal mindset, too. We stopped by Northern Lights in Spokane to try their Copper Fest, a clean, creamy amber with a bit of spice to it. Excellent. They’ll also be pouring a winter ale soon. Coeur d’Alene Brewing was down to six kegs of their Oktoberfest ale as of last week, but they’ll be adding a pumpkin spice beer within the next two weeks, then their annual Frozen Lake winter ale. Sandpoint’s MickDuff’s Brewing Company will be releasing a pumpkin around the same time. Right now they’re pouring their Gnarly 9, a malty pale ale with 9 percent alcohol.