Fall has its ups and downs. The leaves change to beautiful colors, the kids are back at school, and you're reminded of how good it feels to ease into the warmth of your favorite sweater. But it ain't all pecan pies and football games. Summer is over. It's getting cold. The flu's going around. And then there they are: cases stacked on cases stacked on cases of pumpkin beers.
If you're here, you probably hate 'em. You aren't alone—pumpkin beers are among the most polarizing beers on the planet. They aren't my favorite either.
Thankfully, lying in the shadows of the mountains of priced-to-sell six-packs at your grocery store are the tastier fall beers—special bottles to seek out this time of year that don't all have vegetables in them.
If you're looking to avoid pumpkin beers, here are five fall options you should really seek out instead.
99% or more of the beers at your bottle shop are made with dried hop flowers. These papery little cones give beers their essential balancing bitterness and lend a pleasant aroma to your beverage. But once a year, around late August or early September, it's hop harvest season, and brewers have the opportunity to use fresh, "wet" hops in their beers.
It's not an easy task to pull off. Hops have to be dried or used as quickly as possible once they're plucked from their vines—give them a few days of sitting around and you'll be left with some moldy lumps that have no place in the brewhouse.
Despite this tiny window of brewing opportunity, many major breweries in the United States go to great lengths (or at least pay fat FedEx bills) to get their hands on wet hops to be used in pale ales, IPAs, and other hoppy styles that will showcase the plant's unusual fresh flavor.
So, what do they taste like? Wet hops taste about as different from dried hops as basil leaves plucked fresh from the plant compare to what's in a supermarket shaker bottle. That is not to say that they are necessarily better in beer, but they are definitely not the same. Every hop variety tastes a bit different (whether it's fresh or dried), but wet-hopped beers tend to have a hoppy flavor that is a bit more soft, fresh, and plant-like, and a bit less pungent and concentrated. If you've never experienced one, make it your mission to track down a fresh bottle—hoppy flavor fades fast, so try to get a bottle within a month or so of the bottle's release.
Fair warning: there are some confusing marketing terms surrounding these end-of-summer specialties. Beers labeled as brewed with "wet hops" will always be made with fresh, undried flowers. The term "fresh hops" is a bit more common, but it can refer to both wet hops and hops that have been dried and used very quickly after harvest, minimizing degradation from time or oxidation. Both are highly seasonal products worth checking out.
Wet-hopped beers to try:
Deschutes Chasin' Freshies and Hop Trip
Founders Harvest Ale
Great Divide Fresh Hop
Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale
Oktoberfest. You know the scene: oompah bands, enormous pretzels, and buff ladies in dirndls carrying a dozen massive beers at a time. It can be kinda great, but here's the thing: tubas get pretty annoying after a while, and those dry old pretzels are never as good as your drunken self thinks they are. The important stuff—the beer—can be had worldwide, and it is delicious. Find yourself a dirndl to wear, and you are in business, friend!
Oktoberfest beers are a Bavarian lager specialty that are typically released in conjunction with their namesake mid-September festival. They are also known as Märzen—golden-amber lagers of moderate strength (around 5 to 6% ABV), featuring bready, toasty German malt in all its majesty. There's a hoppiness there as well, lending a floral aroma and gentle bitterness, especially in fresh, well-cared-for bottles.
These beers earn bonus points for tasting great with many of the classic roasted foods of fall: squashes, pot pies, and beef stews make quick friends with the gently toasty and caramelly flavor of these beers.
Oktoberfest/Märzen Beers to Try:
Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen
Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen
Firestone Walker Oaktoberfest
Heater Allen Bobtoberfest*
Jack's Abby Copper Legend
Yeah, yeah, I know. You totally can get some fresh brown ales year round, but I can tell you confidently that beers of this style taste their best in the fall. A lot of breweries understand this and release their brown ales seasonally, so thankfully, you'll find a flood of freshly brewed examples rolling into your bottle shop right about....now.
As fall's chill starts to set in, there's something comforting about a brown ale's soothing maltiness, and something appropriate about how it fits with the color palette of the changing leaves. And like Oktoberfest beers, brown ales are great with the food you're roasting when it's no longer too hot to turn on the oven.
Brown Ales to Try:
Bell's Best Brown
Alesmith Nut Brown Ale
Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale
More Fresh Releases
Drinking seasonally in the fall means much more than just tracking down wet hops, Oktoberfest beers, brown ales, and (yes,) pumpkin beers. Here are a few more of our favorite autumn beer options.
Founder's Breakfast Stout
Founders' Breakfast Stout is an incredible coffee-packed imperial stout with a fierce following. It's rich, licoricey, and wicked potent, with a hot streak that warms you from the inside. Despite its strength (8.3%), this one is best drunk fresh, when the coffee flavor is still lively. It's sold from October through December, so don't save this one for the new year—their excellent coffee-free Imperial Stout will be out by then anyway.
Lagunitas Imperial Red
When I found out Lagunitas was bringing back their Imperial Red Ale as a 2014 fall release, I jumped up and did a little fist pump (it's okay, no one saw). Get yourself a fresh bottle of this and you'll have yourself a pungent, super-hoppy red ale that finds a satisfying balance between rich caramelly maltiness and aggressively aromatic hops.
Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock*
Smoky rauchbiers are killer with fall dishes like chili, roasted chicken, and root vegetables—bring a bottle to Thanksgiving, trust me. Aecht Schlenkerla releases their Rauchbier Urbock in Bamberg, Germany on the first Thursday of every October, and I look forward to its stateside arrival every day that follows. It's similar to the Oktoberfest beers you know and love, but it's a little extra rich, with an assertive smokiness from the use of malt that's been dried with the smoke of burning beechwood logs.
Jolly Pumpkin Fuego del Otoño*
Jolly Pumpkin's fall offering, despite the brewery's name, contains no pumpkin. It does, however, contain chestnuts, spices, and the acid-producing bacteria that give sour beers their punch. It's a truly unusual and delicious beer—a malty and spicy brown ale that finishes with a touch of tannin and a well-integrated tartness.
Just One Pumpkin Beer? Try an Oddball
Here's the thing: not all pumpkin beers are created equal. We're in a golden age of brewing creativity, and while we're not so excited about every bottle in the pumpkin section of your beer store, there are folks doing downright beautiful things with grain and gourd. These beers are nothing like those sickly sweet spice bombs you may have tried before. In fact, they may convince you that the idea of pumpkin beer isn't so bad after all.
Midnight Sun TREAT
This spiced imperial porter is smooth and satisfying with its array of added ingredients (pumpkin, nutmeg, cacao nibs, cinnamon, and cloves) marrying neatly with a toasty, milk chocolatey maltiness. Find yourself a bottle, a glass, and a big slice of pumpkin pie, and I dare you to tell me again that you hate all pumpkin beers.
Jolly Pumpkin La Parcela*
Jolly Pumpkin's got another fall seasonal up their sleeve, and this time it is a pumpkin beer. La Parcela is their sour, spiced, amber pumpkin beer with added cacao. You won't taste a ton of pumpkin flavor here; instead, this beer is all about the interplay of the cacao, subtle warming spices, and the earthy tones of the beer's funky fermentation.
Almanac Dark Pumpkin Sour
This year, Almanac Beer Company has released not one but two pumpkin beers. The Dark Pumpkin Sour is my favorite (if you like your beers a bit bigger, check out their 12% ABV barrel-aged behemoth Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine). It's sour, but not so much so that it overwhelms the underlying roastiness of dark malts and the oaky berry-like fruitiness picked up from its aging in used red wine barrels.
*Note: Author Mike Reis works for the distributor that carries this beer in the state of California.