I like pumpkin beer. As I set down those words, I imagine droves of beer nerds preparing their torches and sharpening their pitchforks, ready to drive me into the hills. Deriding pumpkin ales has become a favorite pastime of craft-beer snobs and internet trolls, who will gleefully tell you why you’re a fool for cracking open another orange-labeled bottle. And sure: Those beers are often too sweet, rarely contain actual pumpkin, and shouldn’t hit shelves in July. But forget the haters — a well-balanced, richly spiced pumpkin ale is a delightful autumnal treat.
Nevertheless, fall beer offers far more than nutmeg and allspice. Historically, autumn was an important time for brewers. Before refrigeration and climate control, fermentation in warmer months was unpredictable, and brewing in the summer was more likely to yield an impure beer. And in 1553, a Bavarian law was passed that banned summer beer production altogether.
The result? Brewers ramped up in March, brewing a strong, malty lager that could last through the beerless summer months. That style became known as Märzen, from the German word for March. Stored in cool caves and allowed to slowly ferment, the crisp yet robust beer became a perfect transition into the chillier fall months, eventually fueling raucous Oktoberfest celebrations around the world.
These days, a true Märzen is hard to find. But plenty of brewers take a crack at similar styles, including festbiers, maibocks and dunkels. Whatever the name, a pint of malty, dark lager is the perfect accompaniment for the changing seasons. Here in Pittsburgh, Penn Brewery and Church Brew Works ensure that the city is awash in classic German-style beer when Oktoberfest rolls around.
Fresh hops are another great gift of fall. Most of the year, brewers coax flavor and aroma out of dried and pelleted hops. But in late summer and early fall, when the precious hop cones are plump and fragrant, many brewers experiment with fresh- (or “wet”-) hopped IPAs and pale ales. Straight from the fields, fresh hops lend juicy, earthy notes that are often compared to newly mown grass.
Each year, East End Brewing releases Big Hop Harvest, a freshly hopped version of its flagship IPA. Other area breweries have brewed their own wet-hopped beers in past years and, with the growing availability of local hops, more are sure to come. Once they’re out, grab a pint immediately. Unlike Oktoberfest styles, wet-hopped beer should be consumed as quickly as possible after brewing, as all of those delicate nuances dissipate quite quickly.
The list of fall possibilities goes beyond dark German lagers and wet-hopped IPAs, of course. I like a nutty brown ale or a malty red, and it’s around this time that I begin to crave strong Belgian ales again. But whether it’s light, dark, or — gasp! — pumpkin-spiced, the best seasonal beer is the one you want to drink.