If someone utters the phrase “beer drinking weather”, most people would probably have summer in mind: sipping a cool froth-topped pint in an open-air beer garden; raising a glass to the setting sun as a balmy evening begins; glugging on the ultimate in refreshment after a hot day at the office. But when it comes to seasonal beers, it is not summer that reigns supreme. It is autumn. As the days begin to shorten and the temperatures start to dip, a glut of seasonal beers appears, many mimicking the colours of the changing leaves with their amber hues. These beers come with a distinct sense of time and place, using local ingredients or tapping into local traditions.
Author: Lucy Corne
It is the busiest time in the beer calendar. Whether it’s a microbrewery releasing its annual festbier, a mainstream restaurant trying to jump on the Oktoberfest bandwagon or a large-scale tented event meant to mimic the original, October is synonymous with beer festivals the world over. But while most of these events come with plates of sausage and pretzels, revellers clad in lederhosen and an oompah band soundtrack, the beers served at global Oktoberfest celebrations tend to differ from those poured at the real thing in Munich. To understand why, let us travel back in time.
Oktoberfest traces its roots to the 1810 wedding of the crown prince of Bavaria, an event so impressive it has been honoured almost every year since. It quickly developed from an agricultural show to a festival showcasing Bavarian beers, although those early brews would have more resembled today’s dunkels. Towards the end of the century, the Märzen took over as tipple of choice, a beer brewed in March and benefitting from a lengthy lagering period. These beers, long enjoyed at the annual Oktoberfest, are amber in colour with a rich bready maltiness and a dry, thirst quenching finish.
But the story goes that the official Oktoberfest breweries felt the beer wasn’t as thirst quenching – or at least as “poundable” – as they would like and over time the official Festbier became lighter both in colour and body. Today, all beer served in the Oktoberfest tents is golden hued, around 6% ABV and could be referred to as “dangerously drinkable”.
In Germany only the six official breweries of the fest can use the term Oktoberfestbier, but elsewhere in the world that protected appellation doesn’t apply and so you’ll find beers from Alaska to Adelaide, from Sao Paolo to Seoul bearing the moniker “Oktoberfest”. The curious thing though, is that these beers rarely resemble those served in the great tents at Munich’s modern-day Wiesn. Elsewhere in the world, Oktoberfest beers are most commonly the malty Märzens of Oktoberfests past.
But whether you’re sipping on a Märzen or the golden version that the American Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) today calls Festbier, these are brews that honour the changing of the seasons, delivering the refreshing character of a summer lager with just a hint of the robust maltiness of those beers that will carry you through the winter that lies ahead.
It has about as many hard-core fans as it has staunch haters but despite its divisive nature, pumpkin beer is definitely a permanent fixture in its homeland of the USA. And indeed this is a beer with pedigree. Pumpkin beers date back to the 17th century, although those versions have pretty much nothing in common with today’s, save for the name. Malt was difficult – and expensive – to procure, but pumpkins grew in abundance and were used as the main fermentable in historical pumpkin brews.
As malted barley made its way to the USA, pumpkin beers fell out of favour and it would take another pioneer to revive them. In the mid-1980s Bill Owens, founder of Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in California, was inspired by George Washington’s notes on brewing pumpkin beer and decided to play around with the idea. Pumpkins themselves don’t actually offer up a lot of character and Owens realised that when people think of pumpkin, it’s not the vegetable’s fairly bland flavour they’re thinking of, but the spices that are usually added to it when making pumpkin pie. And so he created a beer style that is in equal parts loved and loathed today.
Each autumn, scores of breweries release their annual pumpkin ales – a beer that is by far America’s favourite seasonal style. Some list pumpkin as an ingredient; many do not. The base beer can vary from a pale or amber ale to any number of darker, more robust styles, but what virtually all these beers have in common is the addition of spices you’d associate with warming, winter-is-almost-here desserts – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and perhaps a hint of ginger.
Fresh hop beers
Seasonal beers all have a reason for being. Some are inspired by the weather, some were shaped by history. Fresh hop beers are perhaps the ultimate expression of seasonal brewing, appearing just once a year to coincide with the annual hop harvest.
Hops are a delicate crop, their much coveted oils being volatile and prone to rapid deterioration. Hops are usually dried once they’re stripped from the vine to preserve those oils, but of course drying the plant changes its flavour and aroma, just as dried basil or oregano have quite distinct profiles to their fresh counterparts. Always looking for that new flavour profile or brewing procedure, craft brewers began to wonder what fresh, undried hops would add to their beers and so the fresh hop beer was born.
Also going by the name wet hop or green hop, these beers are usually only found at breweries in hop-growing areas. The plant begins to degrade as soon as it is picked and so brewers race from the hop fields to the brewery with their freshly harvested hops, while a co-worker mashes, lauters and fills the kettle ready to add the hops the moment they arrive.
Using fresh hops brings its challenges – the flavours are more muted than in dried versions, just as a dried strawberry or banana packs more of a flavour punch that a fresh version. Brewers often have to add four or five times the amount of hops they would normally add and even then the beers don’t offer up the same aromas and flavours. Fresh hop beers are largely characterised by a grassiness and are less bitter than those using dried hops. But of course brewers are not trying to mimic their year-round offerings. They are creating a new sub-style that can only appear once a year and must be drunk long before autumn ends.
Photos: Zach Dischner, Adobe Stock