You Win, Autumn

by JOEL SMITH & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & held out as long as I could, clinging to the crisp pale ales and hoppy IPAs of summer, too stubborn to face the onset of autumn like a man. I even refused to sample the new line of Oktoberfest-style marzens until it was officially October. But as the cold has snapped the summer in recent weeks, so has it snapped my will. When you step out your front door and you see your breath for the first time in six months, you know it's time to give up on summer beer.

Now it's time for comfort beer -- ales and stouts that warm the bones. So we called Northern Lights brewmaster Mark Irvin and Latah Bistro chef David Blaine for some advice on pairing beers with comfort foods, and then we did a little independent research on some new and favorite comfort beers. Forget the food -- sometimes the ale's the thing.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f all the foods you'll find in our special Dining Out pullout this week, it was the croissant and the grilled cheese sandwich that most perplexed our experts when it came to a beer pairing. "Breads go good with kind of a yeasty [beer]," Irvin says. "You're not looking for contrast but something that marries well with it."

For the croissant, Blaine advises, "European, for sure. Not just geographically -- something with a light, froofy style. Belgian, French." For the grilled cheese, he suggests Irvin's own Copperfest, a delicious American take on a German Oktoberfest beer.

In the end, they agreed that something light and European would do the trick. First, we tried an EKU PILS from Kulmbacher Brewery in Germany. While I'm usually not keen on pilsners, this lacked the horse piss of, say, an Urquell. It was well balanced, almost creamy -- a nice choice for the butteriness of the croissant and grilled cheese. We also tried the ST. BERNARDUS WITBIER, an exceedingly rare beer that can be found at Jim's Homebrew but sometimes not even in its native Belgium. It's made by monks, and it tastes like it. It's got that typical Belgian wild yeast smell, and as it's unfiltered, it's pretty bready. Notes of orange and coriander -- the hallmarks of a good white beer -- are there, but not overpowering. Which means it probably won't overpower that croissant, either.

Bolder dishes like osso buco and chili require different strategies. For foods with rich, bold flavors, Irvin says, "you want something that's going to cut it, or contrast it," not necessarily something that marries well with it. At the same time, if the food is hot and spicy, you want a beer with a low enough alcohol percentage that you can drink a lot of it to cool down your mouth without passing out.

For the chili, Irvin recommended an Oktoberfest-style beer. Blaine vacillated between a few lighter Mexican beers, but eventually chose the beer he uses in his own chili -- a Stella Artois.

The pairing for osso buco was our favorite beer of the session. Both Irvin and Blaine aimed squarely at the middle of the color palate, suggesting something in the amber range -- sweet, but still a little bitter. Both recommended an Extra Special Bitter (Blaine, specifically, the popular ESB from Redhook) but Irvin also recommended a red beer. We asked Jim Johnson from Jim's Homebrew about this, and he steered us towards LAGUNITAS' 13TH ANNIVERSARY MONDO RED ALE. The full, fruity, piney nose was impressive, but even more so was the incredibly smooth feel in the mouth. It washes your tongue in malt and grapefruit. Absolutely, well, intoxicating.

Then there are the in-between dishes -- things like chicken pot pie, burgers, pot roast -- that can be made mild or extremely powerful. These you have to approach on a case-by-case basis, according to the cook.

We threw whatever we could at them. The chicken pot pie we paired with a MAREDSOUS 10. Typically Belgian -- with interesting off flavors -- it was candy-sweet and, at 10 percent alcohol, very warming. We took both our experts' advice on the pot roast and tried Blaine's suggestion of an IPA and Irvin's "porter or a stout." Of course, no IPA can tangle with BRIDGEPORT's -- perhaps my favorite beer of all time. As for the stout, we went not with the draft Guinness (one of the world's finer comfort beers, to be sure) but with VICTORY'S STORM KING IMPERIAL STOUT, a 9 percent knockout punch packed with all the good dark stuff (chocolate, coffee, molasses, licorice) while retaining a bitter edge that lingers long after.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, this list would be incomplete without a few beers you can sip on their own, comfort meals in themselves. YOUNG'S DOUBLE CHOCOLATE STOUT, available at several area pubs, pours with a thick head and goes down like hot cocoa. Truly a meal in itself. IMMORT ALE from the notoriously crafty Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware is more adventurously wintery: Maple, vanilla and oak stand at the forefront -- as advertised -- but it's also smoky and chewy, with a little brown sugar, a little caramel. And at 11 percent alcohol, it'll tuck you in at night.

But if you want to wait on beers that are too January for the crinkly leaves of October, try a glass of unpasteurized, unfiltered apple cider from France's ETIENNE DUPONT. It's not beer, granted, but the 2005 vintage -- crisp, biting and flavorful -- might just be what you need to reconcile with fall.