Fall Seasonal beers

A utumn is probably your favorite season. Just a lucky guess. It’s also the most prolific time of the year for seasonal beer releases whether you like them all or not. But a true beer lover will find plenty to enjoy. There are three main categories of American beer brewed to celebrate the Autumnal Season—Märzen […]

When Pumpkin Spice is involved, we know who will be turning up and drinkin’ it down… beer lovers!

By Jim Witmer

Autumn is probably your favorite season. Just a lucky guess. It’s also the most prolific time of the year for seasonal beer releases whether you like them all or not. But a true beer lover will find plenty to enjoy.

There are three main categories of American beer brewed to celebrate the Autumnal Season—Märzen (Oktoberfest, or Festbier, all fairly close), Pumpkin spiced beers, and the Harvest beer, or Wet Hop beers.

The Märzen styles seem to be the first to land in draft and supermarket displays, and Shiner and Sam Adams are usually the first to announce that it’s officially autumn although it’s actually early July. Other breweries send them trickling in throughout August. Pumpkin pie spiced beers become ubiquitous by mid-August and will be seen on the shelves through Thanksgiving and beyond. Fresh Hop beers you will see early to mid-September, and are few and short-lived.

The most traditional of all fall beers is the Märzen style, which most breweries just call their Oktoberfest. When done to perfection, it’s a delicious malty German amber lager, a first cousin to Vienna Lager or Bock that can be traced back to 1841, when Spaten created the first recipe and it became the official beer of Munich’s Oktoberfest in 1872. This was the defining style of the world’s largest beer celebration for 100 years. Then Festbier became the official style. It’s lighter in color and flavor, more quaffable, less filling, and meant to be consumed in large quantities, and resembles the Dortmunder/Export style.

Although I often prefer a Märzen, one of my favorite examples of Festbier is from Germany’s Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world (1040 A.D.) and this is one that I always seek out because of their German standard quality.

American craft breweries have been interpreting the Märzen style with a bump-up of the malt and hops a notch, but the most traditional examples show maltiness being dominant with a low level of caramel malt and restrained hop level. Nothing too fancy here, just a well-crafted clean lager that is rich and smooth on the palate. Chicago-based Revolution’s 5.7% ABV Oktoberfest is one of my go-to craft seasonals that is robust enough, yet crisp and balanced. For one that takes the style to another level, I also enjoy Two Brothers (Chicago) Atom Smasher, a hefty 7.70% oak-aged Marzen.

Pumpkin spiced beers are a style that may come down to a love-hate relationship with many dedicated beer drinkers. For someone who doesn’t like pumpkin pie, donuts, pop tarts, or lattes, a beer of this style is not going to happen because these are often described as pumpkin pie in a glass. But for those who embrace the seasonal spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove in every form there are plenty from which to choose.

If there is a classic example, it would start with an amber or brown ale base. Chunks of pumpkin are used in the mash or boil, then various adjuncts and spices are added at different steps during the process to determine how the brewer wants to interpret the style. However, you will be able to find them running the gamut from sweet to sour, dark porters and stouts to barrel-aged, smoked, Belgian-style lagers, and even hot pepper infused. News Alert: Sometimes no pumpkins were harmed in the brewing process for many of these so-called pumpkin beers.

Historically speaking, these big orange gourds and others of it’s kind were often a source of fermentables for early American colonists, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that our craft breweries started using the X factor of pumpkin pie spices for this relatively new category of seasonal beer.

Over-shadowed by the previous two categories and one that sees only a limited window of releases are the Wet Hop or Fresh Hop beers that are brewed immediately upon the hop harvest for the sole reason of showcasing the essence of hop flavor and aroma, and is the embodiment of seasonality in beer styles.

The difference between the Wet Hop and the Fresh Hop can best be described with the example of cooking with fresh herbs vs. dried. To clarify, wet hops are not soaking wet. Rather, they are just not kiln dried or processed, but added to the boil right off the vine (“bine” is the correct term). The moisture content is still approximately 80% compared to the 8-10% when dried. The rawness expression of the plant imparts a more earthy, grassy, cannabis-like, and less bitter character than the processed version.

The Fresh Hop style is similar, but the whole cones are dried, then used within weeks, and the result is still a ripe, fresh and resinous pungent liquid. The limited nature of both styles tend to make them highly regarded, and having them as soon as possible is the best plan of action. The award-winning Fat Head’s Hop Stalker of Ohio is one to watch for, as well as releases from Sierra Nevada. Any hop-forward beer, and particularly a wet-hopped beer, will lose its pungent hop aromatics and fresh flavors over a short period of time, so now is the time to drink to the harvest.

As the weather cools down, these beers continue to heat up. Whether it’s an Oktoberfest, Pumpkin, or Fresh Hop beer, this season has many enticing choices.

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Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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