"Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you’ve gotta do is call,” James Taylor crooned, and—paraphrasing just a skosh—“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a beer.”
Winter’s got robust dark ales that are sometimes embellished with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla beans (as well as bone-warming imperial IPAs). Spring, well, spring has the thaw going for it, so we welcome the return of lighter styles (as well as vernal IPAs). Summer’s got all manner of crisp, refreshing beers that increasingly feature everything from blackberries to cucumbers (and every type of bright IPA under the blazing sun).
But fall? I mean, fall’s got orange, malt-driven Oktoberfest lagers and chestnut, malt-balanced brown ales. It’s also got pumpkin beers, which a couple of years ago were so popular they threatened to encroach on late-summer seasonals but, if we’re being honest, don’t complement many nondessert foods. As far as beer menus go, bar managers have their work cut out for them in autumn.
Gourd beers aside, fall’s the season for beers that taste like beers used to taste. And maybe our brewmasters deserve the shoulder season to get back to basics and stop trying to outshine one another with who can get the most yuzu or Southern Hemisphere hops into their creations. But there’s no denying that for drinkers who drink seasonal styles, autumn is the time when imbibers hibernate—and that poses a conundrum for restaurant bars. But craft beer has never shied away from a challenge.
“The whole reality around seasonal beers has shifted,” says Sayre Piotrkowski, a Certified Cicerone based in San Francisco who clocked time at Camino, The Monk’s Kettle, and St. Vincent Tavern. “It used to be that beer menus were rather stagnant and seasonal offerings served to add some dynamism. These days, even restaurants and bars that don’t see beer as central to their concept are rotating new breweries and beer into their selections regularly. This has made for a reality in which a new unfamiliar offering—whether presented as a seasonal, one-off, or pilot batch—does not attract the sort of attention it might have back in the ,90s and early ,00s.”
In essence, beer sales suffer a bit of lethargy after the autumnal equinox, but because breweries can’t go a whole quarter without sales, brewers still work hard to keep palates amused.
“As to why fall suffers the most, I’d say that both of its signature seasonal styles are fraught with issues,” laments Piotrkowski. “Pumpkin beers were largely undrinkable, so once they were no longer novel, they died. Oktoberfest is a wonderful beer style from taste and recipe perspective, but most Americans have no connection to what Oktoberfest means, or why we are supposed to be celebrating it. Why would they? It was a royal wedding on another continent a very long time ago.”
The history lesson Piotrkowski alludes to is that Oktoberfestbiers (generally Märzen lagers) originated in 1810 for the marriage of Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen.
Märzen, which somewhat ironically means March in German, was historically brewed in that month, then cellared or lagered through the summer when it was too hot to properly brew, and then brought back out to enjoy in the fall. These days, it’s best associated with Munich bierhalls in late September (not October) and consumed by the 6 million people who gather to celebrate.
“The style,” Piotrkowski explains, “runs into the issue that all German beers do these days. … Young craft breweries the world over are now producing beers full of flavor and fireworks that tend to distract us from the quiet precision and subtle craftsmanship that characterize great Bavarian brewing.”
It’s not that there’s no precision or subtlety in American craft brewing, but it does tend to take a backseat to those full-flavored beers he mentions, and right now we’re focused on what tends to be offered to drink between the Independence Day fireworks and Christmas wonderland. While festbier’s natural habitat is the crowded tent and it’s frequently paired with brats and pretzels, it is equally at home in full-service restaurants.
Just ask Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association and co-author of Beer Pairing. “There’s something very hearty and homey about a good crock of French onion soup with brown malt flavor.” In fact, Herz sees the range of fall beers—which mimic the colors of autumn leaves—as ideal complements to “smoked, grilled, roasted, and other heat-advanced flavors.”
Comfort foods deserve comfort beers, so it’s a little mystifying why English brown ales, German lagers (read: malty, nongimmicky beers that “taste like beer”) are deemed less sexy than American hop bombs. Having said that, it’s still harvest season and that brings a cornucopia of harvest ales. Not just fresh pumpkin or squash beers—which don’t necessarily smack of cinnamon and cloves or resemble drinking a glass of pie—but for a limited window in late September and into early October, fresh or wet hop beers. These beers, typically pale ales and IPAs, are made with un-kilned hops the very day they are picked, and they go great with pub classics like burgers or fish ’n’ chips. However, that also means they’re only prevalent in the northern states where hop cones grow. It’s not a style bar managers can build their beer lists around. And, most likely, they’re only super exciting to dyed-in-the-wool hophead beer geeks.
So, returning to that issue of how to get American consumers jazzed about Märzens, bocks, milds, and ESBs: “It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher,” posits Herz. Those above-mentioned styles, she says, are “a missed group of beers with food. Dunkelweizen. Eisbock. American brown ale, which is England’s hoppier cousin. They’ve got such game at the table. They’re hearty and echo back to Melanoidin malts.”
One particular pairing she mentions is beef stroganoff, itself a throwback entrée that deserves a second glance on today’s menus. Who doesn’t love mushroom-accented umami in their rib-coating proteins?
Ultimately, Herz says, “Bar managers have an incredible opportunity with each new season. There’s no choice but to embrace the interesting [range] in the beer lovers’ palates, to partake in seasonal beers with the change each season. It just takes leveraging the restaurant’s menu.”
From a brewery’s autumnal one-and-done batch or the return of gentler-by-comparison styles that tend to come in shades of brown, customers can benefit from a Cicerone or waiter who is able to discuss the opportunities fall presents at the table.
After all, just because the weather is cooling down doesn’t mean beer sales need to dip with the mercury. The majority of beer drinkers didn’t dive in with beers designed to taste like specific foods but, if we recall, it was via beers that tasted like beer—from 18th century Germany or 19th century Britain or, actually, 21st century America.