Saturday, October 31, 2015
Once upon an All Hallows Eve, taps and shelves everywhere featured an old-fashioned beer called a "pumpkin ale." Now pumpkin beers complete their distribution cycles well before you head out for trick-or-treating, and its hard to find one whose strength hasn't been ramped up to imperial level.
Luckily, the brewers who know how to make it bigger also know how to supplement high alcohol-by-volume levels with some serious flavor complexity. And assuming you can find the liquor stores and taprooms that haven't laid their Christmas beer section yet, here are five pumpkin beers you should pair tonight with your favorite zombie movie or with the candy you steal from your kids' baskets.
Copper Kettle Imperial Pumpkin Porter (pictured at left)
The best offering of this season is robust - dark and heavy with layers of pumpkin-pie spices that do not disappoint. The spice bill has the cinnamon highlights that mark many beers of this season, but it also has a vaguely Mediterranean complexity that fills out the body and makes this 7.3% ABV gem one of the more unique pumpkin beers.
Strange Pumpkin Porter
After several years of producing a pretty good Halloween accompaniment, the little Denver brewery that could knocked it out of the park this year. This is a bold porter first and foremost - roasted but not burnt - that is supplemented by a spicy flavor that somehow is bereft of bitterness. While the dark body may look intimidating, it's one of the most smoothly blended beers of the season.
Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
Admittedly, you have to go out of state to find one; I tried some while visiting family in Baltimore, which ironically is much further from this St. Louis brewery than Denver is. But if you can get your hands on one, this may be the sweetest of the pumpkin offerings, an easy blend of malty ale with pumpkin flavorings that run toward the sugary end of the spectrum.
Southern Tier Brewing of New York (available locally) wins the award, however, for crafting the effort that most resembles pumpkin pie. A late-breaking spicy bitterness both contrasts with and compliments the fascinating bread-y flavor of pumpkin pie crust that serves as the underbelly of this surprisingly easy 8.6% ABV imperial pumpkin ale.
Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale
The longtime pumpkin king still can bring it, despite being purchased since last Halloween by an international conglomerate whose first post-expansion commercial specifically mocked pumpkin ales. But it bucks the seasonal trend by producing a regular-strength offering - albeit one brewed with more than seven pounds of pumpkin - that is richer and sweeter than the heavier-bodied Great Pumpkin imperial ale.
Monday, October 12, 2015
In this age of pumpkin-mania, Oktoberfest seems to have been squeezed into a much smaller autumn window. A trip to the liquor store just two days into October, for example, revealed only a handful of marzen lagers on the shelf, already being pushed aside for the next seasonal thing.
Truth be told, however, this isn't a trend to be mourned. While the Oktoberfest style celebrates the Old World brewing process, it also is mired in tradition and, in many ways, lacking creativity. A couple weeks worth of sampling the style this year showed a lot of craft beers that, while perfectly well made, were also very similar in flavoring - caramel notes, a lighter body and just enough hops to give them a crisp aftertaste.
The biggest standout and most unique offering of this year came from Odd 13 Brewing - yet another winner in the Lafayette brewery's growing line of successes. Munchen Brett is a 100 percent Brett marzen with Nelson Sauvin hops, and you taste every nuance of both of those additions. It is complex yet also quite simple, offering a touch of funk without overwhelming the natural qualities of the style.
The best of the more traditional recipes, meanwhile, came from Bristol Brewing, a Colorado brewery that is adept at perfecting styles more than it is at breaking barriers. Red Baron offers a soft touch on the malt, with just enough hopping to cut the sweetness and make the body flow easily.
Beyond that, many beers broke the Oktoberfest taste protocol only with a slight derivation of one characteristic or another.
Left Hand's Oktoberfest Marzen Lager came in at a higher alcohol by volume (6.6 percent) that could be felt on the backtaste as a sort of lemony bitterness.
Epic's Fest Devious presented a drier taste, effectively using its hops to create balance.
Fort Collins Brewery's Oktoberfest, the gold-medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival this year, was thicker in body, relying more on the malt to match a traditional German recipe.
And Upslope, maker of some of the best seasonal beers in Colorado, put forward a lighter-bodied lager that was easy and enjoyable but also faded quickly from the palate.
It wasn't a standout year for Oktoberfest beers. Then again, maybe that's the point. These were crafted to be celebration beers that were easy to enjoy and hard to overthink. But at a time of bigger and bolder styles, Oktoberfest may just be the antithesis of the current craft climate.