Fall seasonal beers fill an interesting niche, bridging crisp, easy-drinking summer brews with richer, heavier holiday beers. What makes an autumn beer an autumn beer? There's no consensus. Pumpkin beers, obviously, are a popular offering. But breweries are also making everything from light sour beers to deep stouts. Our staff tasted 13 fall seasonal beers from breweries throughout the U.S. and picked our favorites. (Full disclosure: Some of the beers were mailed to CHOW as samples.) Here are the six that were the most popular.
Best Fall Session Beer
Sierra Nevada Tumbler
This brown ale was a near unanimous favorite for its overall drinkability. It was described as perfect for early fall "when it's just getting brisk out but you still don't need a heavy overcoat." It’s an auburn-brown malty beer with enough hops to keep the flavor clean, not sweet. It's balanced and mellow enough that you could drink a few without blowing out your palate, and at 5.5 percent ABV, you won't get yourself into trouble too fast either.
Best Beer for Hop Fans
Another favorite across the board, Sixpoint Craft Ales' festively canned beer impressed us with its unique flavor combination of fresh hops and pumpkin, ginger, and white pepper. The Brooklyn-based brewery created it to celebrate the hop harvest by adding just-picked Citra hops to the beer while brewing, i.e., "wet hopping" it. The result is an intensely vegetal, almost marijuana-esque aroma. Flavor-wise, it's not what you'd expect for a hoppy beer: The fresh hops give it an herbaceous, citrusy, and refreshing taste rather than a heavy, super-bitter hops flavor.
Best Lawn Mower Leaf-Raking Lager
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager
This brewery out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was new to us, and its pumpkin lager was the sleeper hit of our tasting. In fact, the brewery claims that this is the only pumpkin lager (as opposed to ale) in the world. Whether that is the case or not, we liked the frothy, medium-light body and smooth, easy drinking of Lakefront's brew. It had a nice smell of fall spices that didn't come off as cloying or fake like many pumpkin brews do, and a mellow, toasty flavor that didn't finish too sweet. One taster noted that "I could have more than one, which I don't normally do with pumpkin beers."
Best Beer for the Sour-Beer Geek
New Belgium Lips of Faith Kick
New Belgium's Lips of Faith Series delivers again, this time with a special-edition collaborative beer made with Seattle's Elysian Brewing Company. Kick is a blend of 75 percent pumpkin-cranberry ale and 25 percent oak-barrel-aged ale. Together, they create a light-bodied sour ale with an orange color. It might be a little too bracing for fall, or it may be just right if you hit an Indian summer day, or want to pair it with a meal.
Best Beer to Cozy Up To on a Cold Day
Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin
This Southern California brewery's fall beer was one of the darkest, most roasty we tasted, being an oatmeal stout partially aged in bourbon barrels. It pours deep brown and tastes chocolaty. We liked that it didn't come off overly sweet and finished with a nice hint of coffee flavor. Considering its depth, we felt it would be best as an end of fall/early winter beer.
Best Classically Autumnal Beer
Brooklyn Brewery Post Road Pumpkin Ale
While there were obvious spice flavors and aromas in this pumpkin beer, particularly of cloves, they were nuanced and balanced so as to not overwhelm the other flavors. Those other flavors were toasty and malty, and the body was medium-light. One taster noted that, with Post Road's low ABV of 5 percent, you could easily drink a few to "cut through the fog."