Autumn in a Glass

Ten beers for harvest moons

By Kurt Wolff

Köstritzer Schwarzbier
Köstritzer Schwarzbier
Dead Guy Ale
Dead Guy Ale
McEwan's Scotch Ale
McEwan’s Scotch Ale
Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale
Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale
Chillier weather means it’s time to warm things up indoors. At least, that was the idea behind this fall beer tasting. There is no “official” autumn beer style, so we chose 10 beers, both lagers and ales, that are sturdy enough to keep you warm but light enough that you can still drink a couple, then go outside and jump in a big pile of leaves (that is, unlike with many strong winter beers, you don’t feel like you’ve just slurped a mug of molasses).

1. Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen. German brewer Spaten concocted the first so-called Oktoberfest beer in 1872, and other brands quickly followed suit. The style is a Märzen, from the German word for March, the month it traditionally was brewed. It’s built with more body than a standard lager, but it’s still surprisingly mild-mannered (you can drink a few without feeling full). Underneath its malty flavor is a subtle sharpness that hints at citrus, but overall it’s an easygoing classic that both warms and refreshes.

2. Sudwerk Märzen. This American-made Märzen (from California brewer Sudwerk, which specializes in German lagers) feels even warmer and rounder than the Spaten, with more of a toasty, nutty flavor that tastes like fall. It’s malty yet a touch dry (not sweet) and goes down plenty easy.

3. Köstritzer Schwarzbier.Talk about deceptive: This almost pure-black brew (dating back to the 1500s and reportedly a favorite of Goethe’s) looks frightening enough to stop your heart from beating, but it’s actually got a light body and refreshing character. The flavor’s toasty (not sweet or overpowering), the alcohol is on the low side, and the finish is clean and bright, almost like a palate cleanser.

4. New Belgium 1554. Another black brew, this comes courtesy of Colorado brewer New Belgium, maker of Fat Tire Amber Ale. It’s similar in appearance to Köstritzer and is said to be based on a 16th-century recipe (but in this case one from Belgium, not Germany), yet stylistically it’s different. On one hand it carries a touch of chocolate, on the other it’s roasty and charred; and where Köstritzer zips in and out, this one lingers on your tongue for a while.

5. Dead Guy Ale. First brewed in the early 1990s for Day of the Dead, this tasty ale is now a regular bottled product from Rogue Brewery in Oregon. It’s balanced in flavor, and while it has a sturdy malty base, the bitter flavor of the hops does peek through. It’s also lighter in color (copperish) than some on this list—warm, yes, but not heavy at all—smooth and very drinkable.

6. Fuller’s ESB. British brewer Fuller’s first unleashed this popular, award-winning ale in 1971. It’s marked by an amber color, medium body, and smooth, nutty, well-rounded flavor that, despite its name (ESB stands for extra special bitter), leans more toward grains than the powerful hops taste you’d find in an IPA. The “bitter” bite is noticeable more in the aftertaste—and like British ales Bass and Boddingtons, it’s plenty easy to drink (note it’s even smoother on tap than in bottles).

7. McEwan’s Scotch Ale. Scottish ales tend to be malty tasting (barley is a major crop), and many are also higher than average in alcohol content. Both are the case with McEwan’s (brewed by Scottish & Newcastle), a dark, strong ale possessing a deep brown color and a rich, complex, yet still balanced flavor that hints at both sweetness (figs, toffee) and a subtle smokiness. It’s one of the heartiest of this particular autumnal bunch, and though dark and foreboding in appearance, it’s still not quite as heavy as you might be led to believe.

8. Moylan’s Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale. California craft brewer Moylan’s makes this rich, slightly sweet ale, and as the name implies it is at once powerful (8 percent) and a bit silly-making. It’s a touch honeylike in flavor and almost golden-orange in color—not as dark as McEwan’s, but that’s not to say light. It’s a beer made more for slow sipping than quaffing. Serious stuff indeed, but it also possesses a sassy undercurrent and remains, in its own way, refreshing.

9. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. When photographer and craft-brewing pioneer Bill Owens opened Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in 1983 in Hayward, California, it was only the second brewpub in the country. One of his signature ales is this spiced and somewhat earthy concoction made with roasted pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. It’s similar in flavor to a spiced Christmas ale, but thankfully it’s not syrupy or overly sweet.

10. Ommegang. This rich, brown burgundy–hued beer is the lone Belgian of the bunch, and though it’s brewed in the style of a Trappist double ale, it’s actually from upstate New York. We chose it because it’s more widely available than most Belgians, it’s not too expensive, and it’s darn tasty, with a creamy texture giving way to flavors of toffee, currants, and caramel. A friendly, big-boy brew you’ll want to keep by your side all evening.

Kurt Wolff is senior editor of CNET Music and author of The Rough Guide to Country Music. He’s written about food, drink, and travel for various publishers including Zagat Surveys, Lonely Planet, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He also wrote a beer column for the Guardian called Hopped Up.

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