Like all the best things in life, great beer is an ephemeral thing. Sure there are bottles worth aging (though fewer actually improve with age than you might think), but most are best fresh and in their season. These days it’s less about the availability of ingredients or limitations stemming from the weather – technology has enabled us to overcome those primitive constraints – and more about tradition and emotion. We drink seasonal beers because they root us in the moment, capturing the flavors, aromas and the essence of the season.
So, here are some beers. Some of them are seasonal and/or limited, one of them is new to market and one is just so damn good, I can’t not say something about it.
Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest
Sierra Nevada is like the Godfather of craft beer. The brewery’s pioneering founder, Ken Grossman, became the industry’s first billionaire just last year. But that hasn’t prevented the OG craft brewery from continuously producing some seriously superior liquid. They are doing some interesting experiments with hops and pushing the envelope on emerging styles while simultaneously creating faithful adaptations of the classics.
Case in point – every year they collaborate with a different German brewery for their seasonal Oktoberfest beer. This year, they’ve teamed up with Mahrs Bräu for a traditional festival beer with a solid malt backbone that’s balanced by a crisp hop finish. Contributing something new (or perhaps not) to the tradition of Oktoberfest, they finished the beer with an obscure German hop called Record, an aroma hop described as having a “pleasant European aroma” with a “mildly fruity” flavor.
While not an official Oktoberfestbier (Marhs Bräu is in Bamberg, not Munich), Sierra Nevada’s take is an accurate representation of the style and always a sure bet come September.
For more on the real Oktoberfest, read my article on it here.
I tasted this beer alongside the Sierra Nevada version with a couple of friends and we were all somewhat surprised to find ourselves preferring the Warsteiner version. I don’t know why that would come as a shocker, Warsteiner is after all an authentic German brewery that has been around nearly three centuries. Perhaps I’ve come to appreciate how a brewery like Sierra Nevada can adapt something traditional for a modern palate or it could be that I’ve always been dismissive of German beer in general. Either way, the Warsteiner was a winner, pouring a light golden color but full of malty sweetness with a clean finish. Although also not an official Oktoberfestbier, it smacks of the real thing and probably goes awesome with a good pretzel!
New Belgium Pumpkick
Pumpkin beers elude me. I can get down on a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie same as any warm-blooded American but there is no love lost between me and pumpkin beers. Perhaps once upon a time before the shelves were flooded with fruit-treated and spiced beers they fulfilled a certain role, providing something different and excitingly seasonal, but now they just seem obligatory. To be fair, I’m not a fan of pumpkin spice either. I’ll eat in a pie but that’s more for the textural contrast of the graham cracker crust and the soft filling than the flavors themselves.
That’s what a lot of these beers are these days – pumpkin spice beers. True pumpkin beers were actually brewed from pumpkins by our forefathers before they had ample supplies of grain to ferment. Pumpkin doesn’t contribute a whole lot of flavor when it’s all said and done, hence the need for all those autumnal spices in the first place. What we are left with is the association of “pumpkin” with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice. Pumpkick however, is something in-between, using real pumpkin juice (for all the good it does) with the semi-unique bonus addition of cranberry juice for a little added tartness and all kinds of Thanksgiving in a bottle. There’s another surprise ingredient that is less obvious to pick out – lemongrass.
As far as pumpkin beers go, you could do worse. I’m good for now.
Taking its name from the classic meme, Aardwolf wins the naming game for their contribution to the pumpkin beer game with Ermah-Gourd! This year they’ve “spiced” it up by completely changing not only the recipe, but the style. Formerly a pumpkin ale, the latest iteration plays (perhaps ironically) off the PSL-craze as a pumpkin-spiced imperial milk porter with coffee. This nod to the most basic of beverages is nothing if not clever thanks to the addition of Bold Bean coffee and milk sugar. Does it taste like a Pumpkin Spice Latte? No, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get with a beer.
Southern Tier Warlock
Ok this is probably the one pumpkin beer I can get behind. There’s nothing basic or wimpy about this 10% ABV imperial pumpkin stout. It gets extra points for using real pumpkin in the fermentation and extra, extra points for the chocolate and coffee notes (without actually using either) from the roasted malt. I have it on good authority that this beer blends exceptionally well with cold brew coffee for the ultimate seasonal treat!
Lagunitas 12th of Never
There is nothing seasonal about this beer but it just came out and it’s amazing. It’s probably my new go-to 12 pack. This juicy pale explodes with hop flavor but with a very light-handed bitterness. It ranks highly among the new-ish category of super-hoppy pale ales that have usurped the throne of in-the-now easy-drinkers from session IPAs. It’s a little fruitier than Ballast Point Grunion and the finish lingers longer than MIA’s Mega Mix, both of which are exceptional examples of the style. 12th of Never really nails it which comes as a bit of a surprise in light of Lagunitas’ recent sale to Heineken.
The beer’s namesake refers to a Twitter-rant on cans from founder, Tony Magee, who declared Lagunitas would be the last brewery in the US to can their beer citing the environmentally irresponsible practices required to extract aluminum despite their recyclability.
Creature Comforts Reclaimed Rye
If 12th of Never is my new go-to session beer, Reclaimed Rye is my new go-to food-friendly beer. Technically an amber, Reclaimed Rye is aged on oak for what amounts to a complex yet subtle malt-forward beer with just enough spice from the rye and soft vanilla notes from the French oak to keep it interesting. You could just as easily throw it back at 5.5% but it’s a beer worth appreciating that goes well with nearly anything you’re having for dinner. It’s also the inspiration for one of my collaboration beers with Intuition Ale Works for Jax Beer Week.
There’s just one problem – it’s only available in Georgia and really only Athens (where it’s brewed) and Atlanta. It’s sister-beer, Tropicalia is practically a white whale beer at this point, selling out in Atlanta craft beer stores within hours of delivery. I was literally laughed at the last time I asked for it. Tropicalia is top-notch and one of my favorite IPAs but I really like the understated brilliance of the Reclaimed Rye.
There’s actually two problems – although there are design proofs on the internet for them, it doesn’t come in cans, yet. The good news is both Athens and Atlanta are within a day’s drive and perfectly acceptable options for a weekend getaway and you can almost always find it at almost every growler station in either town or stop by the brewery in downtown Athens for a fresh quaff.
Now get to drinkin’!