From dunkels to kellerbiers, craft varieties are displacing pumpkin-flavored beers as autumn superstars.
October brings changes in weather, foliage, dinner menus, and beverage lists. It also brings an aggressive flood of all-things-pumpkin, including beer. Pumpkin ale. Pumpkin porters. Pumpkin everything. But restaurants, breweries, and even consumers are leaning into great alternatives to the annual squall of spiced squash ales. Darker German-style lagers like dunkels, Oktoberfest, and kellerbier have long-standing merit and provide a seasonal bridge of flavors. They consistently sell well and pair nicely with fall menus.
“I’m a pretty big fan of German styles in general,” says Katie Nierling, beer buyer for Parry’s Pizzeria & Bar in suburban Denver. Nierling thinks dunkels—meaning dark in German—are under-appreciated. They can express a range of flavors but tend to have bready, caramel flavors from the malts. “They’re some of the more refined beers: full flavor and lighter in body,” Nierling says.
Parry’s Pizza has about 600 taps across its eight Colorado locations, and Nierling commits several taps to darker lagers in fall. Locally she likes Moondoor Dunkel by Wibby Brewing, which focuses exclusively on German-style lagers. Grimm Brothers Brewhouse’s Fearless Youth is a Munich Dunkel that Nierling enjoys because “it has a little more body and oomph to it than other lagers and more chocolate,” she says.
New Belgium Brewing Company’s 1554 also comes out of Colorado. “It’s still kind of a cult classic,” Nierling says. At New Belgium’s Charlotte, North Carolina, location, Nierling loves The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s Dunkel, which while technically a winter variety, matches with autumnal menus. “That one is a bit more caramelly, more Munich style with smoothness.”
Nierling also likes dunkels because they pair really well with pizza. “The acid of the red sauce goes well with roasted dark beers. They highlight the bready, biscuit nature of the crust,” she says.
Oktoberfest only lasts two weeks in September in Germany, but the festival’s beer style has selling power throughout fall in the U.S. Casey Hard, general manager at Max’s Taphouse in Baltimore, begins selling them in September and doesn’t stop until about Thanksgiving. Max’s has a long beer list to serve everybody, but Oktoberfest is the rare style with common appeal to most beer drinkers.
“The flavor profile crosses all markets,” Hard says. “Most people enjoy that flavor. Someone who is a Miller Lite drinker can make the jump into Oktoberfest. We want to get our macro drinkers to move toward craft, and this is a great style for that,” he adds.
Oktoberfest is technically a darker lager but it has a more reddish copper color than dunkels. It has a lower in ABV and easier to drink in volume. “No one wants to drink a stein of imperial stout,” Hard says.
In the fall, Hard splits Oktoberfest beers 50/50 between American and Bavarian breweries. In Baltimore he likes Union Craft Brewing because they have a good record with well-rounded German-style lagers. He also likes Diamondback Brewing Company’s Oktoberfest.
But you can’t celebrate Oktoberfest without sourcing Bavarian lagers. Germany’s industrial breweries like Paulaner are consistent and reliable, but Hard also serves smaller brands like Hofbräuhaus Freising’s Festbier. “It’s a great jumping-off beer for folks who like lighter beers,” he says.
Unfiltered and up-and-coming
“The style that’s kind of poking its head into the industry is the kellerbier,” says Max Toste, co-owner of Deep Ellum in Boston.
Kellerbier is generally unpasteurized, unfiltered, slightly hazy, and more malt-forward than hop-driven. Like Oktoberfest or märzen beers, they’re easygoing lagers but with more body and flavor—a perfect transition between summery pilsners and wintry stouts. Deep Ellum has 28 draft lines, but Toste says he uses up to 15 taps in autumn for German-style lagers.
“Kellerbier is a very loose style because it’s not as specifically defined,” Toste says. “A brewery can be creative and mess around in the style, and it’s not blasphemy.” He credits Jack’s Abby Brewing’s Kellerbier Series as a good example. Deep Ellum 11 rotating kellerbiers, such as Private Rye, a slightly spicy keller brewed with rye malt, and Dry Hopped Post Shift, a keller pilsner dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc hops.
Kellerbiers sell well because they’re flavorful and textured enough for craft beer diehards but approachable enough for domestic lager drinker. This makes them good beers year-round, not just the fall.
From Germany, Toste likes several kellers with appealing hints of haze, such as Mönchshof Kellerbier and Riegele Kellerbier. The beer that helped convert him to a Bavarian beer fanboy was Hofbräuhaus Traunstein’s 1612er Zwickl. “It’s absolutely stunning. When you close your eyes, you think you’re drinking a full-flavored pilsner,” he says. He’s also partial to Mahr’s Ungespundent lager, better known as Mahr’s U.