The temperature may not be dropping, but football has started and the hurricanes are hitting, so fall must be approaching. The new season brings a fresh slate of beers appropriate for the cooler weather, and most can already be found in stores. Of course, the quintessential fall beer is the Oktoberfest, but look for a variety of amber ales that put an emphasis on malt flavor over refreshing crispness. Most of these beers are neither overly sweet nor tongue-numbingly hoppy, so they make good "gateway" beers for those wanting to expand their beer-drinking palate.
Oktoberfest beer is also referred to as märzen, the German word for March (when they are traditionally brewed), or festbier, for obvious reasons. After lagering for several months, these beers are ready for consumption in late summer, so don't feel like you have to wait until October to try one. The long storage period makes them clear, crisp and smooth, with no fruity esters or graininess. They range from dark gold to coppery orange in color, and feature soft malt flavors of toasted bread, nuts and earth, with perhaps a hint of caramel sweetness and some spicy, herbal hops. A moderate hop bitterness balances the malt and contributes to the dry finish.
The first keg tapped at Oktoberfest in Munich every year is a Spaten (5.9 percent ABV), so it certainly has tradition in its favor. Golden-brown and transparent as pure amber, it's a beautiful beer when the light hits it in the glass. Toasted Munich malts contribute to an earthy, almost musty character with brown bread and a bit of nuttiness. Some herbal hops and a roasted bitterness keep the finish dry and clean. Although Spaten gets the honor of being the first keg tapped, Paulaner and Hacker-Schorr both make fine festbiers that are not too hard to find in Atlanta.
In addition to the classic German festbiers, many American craft brewers take a crack at an Oktoberfest each fall. Brooklyn Brewery's version is one of the most authentic. Samuel Adams and Left Hand also produce well-regarded examples. Thomas Hooker Brewing Company of Connecticut makes an Oktoberfest that has a bit more toffee sweetness and a richer mouthfeel than the traditional version. It's delicious just the same and is hereby this week's beer pick.
American amber and red ales could be seen as the stateside answer to the Oktoberfest style. They're malt-forward, but as ales they're fruitier and heavier in body, and lack the dry malt character of the German lager. North Coast Brewing Company's Ruedrich's Red Seal Ale (5.5 percent ABV) is good all year round, but it seems especially well-suited to fall. Cidery, sweet malts alternate with spicy, citric hops in this beautifully balanced and easy-drinking beer.
Sweetwater Brewing Company's Motor Boat ESB is the latest in its Catch-and-Release seasonal series. It has more in common with a beer like Red Seal than the British style from which it takes its name. The aroma of piney hops and brown sugar suggest a rich, American-style ale, and the flavor delivers with a solid hop profile backed by a slick, caramel-malt backbone. The finish is semidry, with the sweet malts reluctantly yielding to a lingering hop bite and some alcohol warmth. Sweetwater's new offering won't disappoint beer geeks looking for something a little more adventurous from this local mainstay.
Red Hook Late Harvest Autumn Ale is the most recent seasonal from the Red Hook stable. Flowery, mildly spicy hops and toasted, caramel malts are blended nicely on the front end, but with a bit of a dull, steely finish. This would make a fine accompaniment to a plate of ribs or a burger and fries.
Pumpkin beers are becoming popular and are a sure harbinger of fall. Adding fruit and vegetables to beer is always a dicey proposition, often resulting in a one-note novelty beer. Pumpkin beers are particularly tricky because pumpkin can really muck up the brewing works and doesn't add a lot of flavor to the beer, but rather provides support for the spices that are so suggestive of pumpkin pie. Many brewers just add the spices or use pumpkin flavor rather than real pumpkins. Weyerbacher's Dan Weirback resisted making a pumpkin ale for a long time, but when he finally decided to make one, he went big. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale (8 percent ABV) uses tons of fresh pumpkin and plenty of spices to produce a rich, complex sipper. Toffee, pumpkin, brandy, apple jack and pie spices are all evident. It makes a nice after-dinner treat.