It’s autumn, the time of year when we all complain about holiday decorations going up earlier and earlier. It’s also a time of year that brings potentially wonderful things from the craft beer world.
One of them is obvious: pumpkin-related beers. When it comes to pumpkin spice, it is understandable to be cynical, thanks to numerous companies out there that just nakedly add that infamous mix of spices to products and call them “Pumpkin Spice (Insert Names Here).” Some brewers do it, too—but some of them, at least, do it right. In other words, “pumpkin spice” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be drinking liquified potpourri.
Take Great Divide’s Yeti imperial stout. For years, Great Divide has been making variants of the Yeti with ingredients like chocolate, espresso and more. This year, I found tall individual cans of the Pumpkin Spice Yeti, which include the aforementioned assorted spices—as well as coffee, resulting in a rather tasty version of a not-so-new idea.
I don’t see any new releases for it yet, but The Bruery for many years has released a seasonal Belgian-style strong ale with tons of roasted yams, molasses and spices called Autumn Maple. I swear by it as an accompaniment to your Thanksgiving meal—or as a nightcap.
If you’re looking for something less strong, check out Spencer Brewery’s The Monkster Mash, which is a great combination of spices and actual beer flavor. I detected a hint of white pepper as well, which might be from a Belgian yeast strain—which would make sense, given Spencer is an actual Trappist brewery in Massachusetts.
The season, mercifully, is not all pumpkin spice. As I write this, “wet hop” beers are being released—and need to be consumed quickly. If you’re unfamiliar: Some brewers have freshly picked hops rush-delivered, and then they add them to the beer as soon as humanly possible. This imparts both familiar and new flavors and aromas from the different hop varietals. Expect citrus and grass, as well as any other characteristics the particular hops used generally contribute to a final product. I’ve been lucky to get hold of some brilliant versions by North Park Beer Co. in San Diego and Green Cheek in Orange, thanks to friends, but I found Fremont Brewing’s Field to Ferment at the Palm Desert Total Wine and More. Fremont loves mixing up the hops used every year, and I look forward to everything the brewery releases that involves wet hops, including this year’s release with Simcoe and Centennial.
There’s also the trusty Celebration Fresh Hop IPA from Sierra Nevada Brewing that has been released for decades—four decades, to be exact. If you want a taste of old-school pine and citrus that’s balanced by a rich malt body, you can find Celebration locally without much effort.
Oktoberfest sees yearly releases of some fantastic beers that will still be good in November and December. The classic versions from German breweries are a good place to start, and Spaten, Augustiner, Hofbräu and Paulaner are among the first companies that come to mind. It should be said here that there is some confusion surrounding the märzen and festbier styles; the former is a rich, amber lager with some distinct notes of browned bread, whereas the latter is paler, hoppier (even though it’s still malt-focused) and lighter in alcohol. A festbier is designed for, well, festivities, and since these festivities include quite a bit of drinking, a lighter, less-malty beer makes sense.
Not all American breweries adhere to these guidelines, however. Sierra Nevada has a great Oktoberfest beer that is most definitely based off of a märzen, but with more of a caramel malt flavor. I’ve seen a number of Southern California breweries make exceptional versions of festbiers, including Modern Times, Green Cheek, Highland Park (who does one of my favorite American examples) and Enegren Brewing. It’s certainly worth a trip to go get some of these beers for the backyard barbecues we can have again, thanks to the merciful end of the summer. Enegren’s Oktoberfest can be found at Ranch Market in Thousand Palms. It’s also worth mentioning again that German styles are made for grilled meats, especially pork.
Before I leave you to revel in the autumnal deliciousness that seasonal beers can provide, I want to talk about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and some of the beers that have been inspired by Mexican flavors. Stone Brewing’s Xocoveza was the competition-winning idea of a San Diego homebrewer, Chris Banker, made in collaboration with Cerveceria Insurgente out of Tijuana; Stone has released this beauty once a year since 2014. It’s an imperial milk stout designed to give the impression of a Mexican hot chocolate. With tons of cocoa, coffee, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg, it’s easily my favorite Stone beer of the last decade. San Diego-based Thorn Brewing’s Spicy Maya takes a similar idea, but pulls the brakes on the strength while warming my heart—not just because of the cayenne and pasilla peppers, but also because they use a dry Irish stout as a base. Thorn did this in collaboration with Chuao Chocolatier from Carlsbad, and the result is glorious. Xocoveza can be found in many area stores, including University Village Food Mart in Palm Desert, but I have only spotted the Spicy Maya at Total Wine.
Yes, there is a lot to choose from as far as seasonal beers go—and you don’t have to travel very far to enjoy them. Leave the people who bafflingly want pumpkin spice hard seltzer (oh, it exists!) to themselves and take in the season via amazing craft-beer creations.