As you may have noticed, or if you haven’t yet you soon will, fall seasonals are popping up on tap lists and store shelves at an ever increasing rate. The brewing industry’s push for everything fall has begun, and with good reason.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]all beer styles, especially the beloved pumpkin-spiced ales, are overwhelmingly popular and highly lucrative for the industry’s booming breweries. Unfortunately for many of the well seasoned and adventurous craft beer-loving crowd, this can also become a very monotonous seasonal beer overload.[quote float=”center”]As the temperature drops, the leaves change, and the physical season catches up with the fiscal, let me encourage you to seek out some of the other fantastic brews that the autumnal harvest has to offer.[/quote]
Pumpkins ripen as the warm, sunny days transition into cooler nights, making them a readily available source of fermentable sugar. This makes them a prime choice to toss into the boil kettle with some common baking spices to create the quintessential harvest ale. The fleshy gourds aren’t the only plants giving up the ghost and with it their prized fruits. Fall is also hop harvesting season and many craft breweries are seizing the opportunity to make some truly special wet-hopped ales. Wet-hopped refers to the use of freshly harvested, whole-cone hops, for the majority or entirety of a beer’s hop bill, rather than the kiln-dried, pelletized hops more commonly used. Hops degrade extremely quickly, losing precious essential oils and volatile aromatic compounds (those delicious hop flavors and aromas) with each passing hour. Kiln-drying preserves the hops and dramatically improves their shelf life, but many of the most delicate chemical compounds in the hops are destroyed in the process. Wet-hopping offers craft consumers a unique chance to taste and smell the full bouquet a hop varietal has to offer. Ironically though, the relative bittering power of wet hops is substantially lower than the dried, compressed counterparts. This provides a more subtle, and arguably more drinkable, hop profile. Using fresh hops is an extremely costly, labor intensive, and delicate process. In order to get the hops from the field to the boil kettle as quickly as possible, breweries must procure overnight refrigerated transport and adjust their hectic brewing schedules to accommodate the incoming harvest. The majority of wet-hopped ales tend to be hop-focused and moderate to aggressively bitter beer styles, such as American pale ales and IPAs. Since up to as much as 10 times the amount of wet hops are needed to provide the same bittering effects as dried hops, the amount of hops required to reach the requisite IBU (International Bitterness Unit) is dramatically increased. Brewers must be sure that they contract with the hop growers to purchase the literal tons of hops needed to produce substantial quantities of their wet-hopped beers.
Sierra Nevada is credited with pioneering this process with their Wet Hop Harvest Ale in 1996. Today, Sierra Nevada offers a range of wet-hopped ales spanning hemispheres and seasons, but the original, now known as Northern Hemisphere Harvest ale, is still delicious. This IPA provides a wealth of citrusy, floral, grassy hop flavors and aromas set against the background of an amber malt backbone. My first wet-hopped beer experience was with a highly quaffable offering from another well known craft icon. Founders Brewing’s (Grand Rapids, Michigan) Harvest Ale was the beer that turned me on to the style and is still a release for which I wait anxiously each fall. Freshly harvested American hops give a huge, juicy, citrus nose and pleasantly similar palate with just the right amount of bitterness for my personal preference. The lighter body of this orange-hued beauty provide a crisp balance that let the hops really shine. Troegs Brewing (Hershey, Pennsylvania) hasn’t been in our market for nearly as long as the aforementioned craft giants, but they have been producing beer since 1997, and their Hop-Knife Harvest ale is a serious contender in the wet-hopped game. The use of fresh hops and their own HopCyclone process (mixing hops with the beer throughout fermentation) creates a delicious IPA that lands squarely between the bright, crisp Founder’s Harvest ale and the more resinous, pungent Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest ale. While these deliciously resinous ales are complex enough to stand on their own, they also pair well with hearty, spicy dishes. One of my favorite dishes to pair with IPAs and other bright, clean, hoppy ales is chile colorado. Essentially strips of seasoned flank steak, seared and simmered in a red sauce, comprised largely of ripe, red chili peppers, this dish is perfectly complimented and intensified by beers such as wet-hopped styles. The burst of hop flavor and bitterness sets off a chain reaction from the peppers’ heat and brings out the crispness of the radish, cilantro, and lime that usually reside alongside the fiery steak. The alcohol and carbonation scrub the palate of the fattiness of the beef between bites and the toasty malt underneath helps sooth the heat ever so slightly.
Fall is the prime ripening season for a host of other tasty fruits of the fields and forests, and being the intrepid sort that they are, craft brewers have found creative, delicious ways to incorporate these late bloomers. The list of plants whose fruit ripens in the fall varies regionally, allowing for unique seasonal beers that can only be produced in certain geographic areas. Quince, pears, apples, sweet potatoes, chilis, figs, persimmons, and pomegranates are just a few of the fall favorites that get incorporated into libations across the country and around the world. In addition, many of these require farm-to-table methodology to get the ripest, freshest ingredients into boil kettles and fermenters to produce incredibly complex and unique brews. One of my favorite breweries, The Bruery (Placentia, California), makes an awesome riff on the typical fall seasonal. Their Autumn Maple ale substitutes yams in place of the usual Jack-o-lanterns and ramps up the complexity of the obligatory baking spice regiment with additions of molasses and maple syrup. The resulting ale is a massive 10% ABV behemoth dripping with sweet, fall flavors and an earthiness that hides its alcohol content so well it could be dangerous. It would be tempting to go the easy route and suggest pairing this ale with a holiday-style feast, but where it really shines is breakfast. I eat breakfast any time of day and I prefer a nice stack of pancakes or a waffle, fried eggs, and, if I’m being honest, thick cut bacon and spiced, country-style sausage. Autumn Maple’s molasses, maple, and spices blend seamlessly with the breakfast breads and their sticky counterpart. The rich, full mouth feeling compliments the smooth texture of runny yolks and the richness of fatty pork. The sweetness of the beer is cut by the spiciness from the pork, enhanced by the cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in the brew.
North Carolina’s very own Fullsteam Brewery (Durham, North Carolina) uses a local fruit known as paw-paws to create a truly regionally unique fall seasonal. If you’re wondering what a paw-paw is, you are likely “not from around these parts.” Paw paws are a fleshy fruit that grows on clustered trees, referred to as a paw paw patch. Their flavor is sweet and tangy, with hints of banana, mango, and cantaloupe. The fruits rot and bruise easily upon ripening and must be used or frozen within 2-3 days of harvest. Fullsteam used 300 pounds of foraged fruit to create a Belgian-style golden ale that was accentuated by the paw paw’s unique flavor. Fullsteam epitomizes the farm-to-table philosophy in their Forager series of beers, referring to it as “plow-to-pint” while taking it a step further with the use of locally foraged foods. If possible, try a beer as unique as this one with its actual fruit ingredient in the raw for the full experience. Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware) is well known for producing eccentric, creative ales, and their Piercing Pils is no exception. While categorized as a winter seasonal, its December 1st release date technically lands it in late fall. This Czech pilsner is infused with pear tea and pear juice to create the perfect balance of sweet, bitter, fruity, and tart. This lighter, crisper cold weather offering is a welcome break from the darker, heavier beers more commonly seen throughout fall and winter. Try pairing this golden beauty with a warm bowl of mussels in a traditional white wine sauce. The sweetness of the pear and the softness of the bready pilsner malt accentuate the succulent mussels. The carbonation and tartness provide contrast and a palate cleansing effect against the background of the creamy sauce in which the mussels are bathed. With such a great variety of fall seasonals that stray from the status quo there is no excuse not to break away from the norm and enjoy a beer that celebrates the diversity of harvest time.
Jeremiah Tracy is a Certified Cicerone (R), and is the Head of Beer Education and Quality Control for the Thirsty Monk Pub & Brewery.