The heat of the summer fades into a crisp autumn breeze. The days grow shorter. The leaves start to turn. And most importantly, your beer selection switches from summery wits and crisp saisons to more robust styles that'll see you through the cold weather.
Yes, you could just drink nothing but stouts clear through March and do just fine. But to have a little more fun with the season, we recommend working these less ubiquitous styles into your rotation.
Spicy Winter Warmers
These are big, rich, boozy malt bombs, with lots of sweetness and a dark hue. Most (but not all) of them also include some kind of spice blend, which lends a zing of wintry flavor to punch back against the massive malt presence.
Obviously, every brewery's rendition is different – some go heavy on the spice while others omit it entirely, and colors go from deep red to a stout-like black. But for the most part, you can expect sugary notes of toffee, caramel, dark chocolate, and vanilla alongside a light spiciness.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Deschutes Jubelale, Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig, Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Don't be fooled by the bright color – these are all business, with ABVs that usually hit the double digits.
True to their name, wheatwines usually use a very high percentage of wheat in the malt, which gives them a brighter hue and a light mouthfeel. But unlike a refreshing, low-alcohol hefeweizen or pale wheat ale, this style uses a much larger amount of malt in the brewing process, which draws out more fermentable sugar, which gives yeast more fuel to turn into alcohol.
The result is a confusing, but delicious, combination of styles. You've got the heavy-hitting boozy sweetness of a barleywine, but the gold-to-amber colors of something far lighter in flavor. They're overloaded with rich, boozy flavor that's well suited for slow sipping on brisk winter evenings, but with an interesting lightness from the wheat malts instead of the roasty dark ones that you'd expect in a high ABV beer.
The Bruery White Oak, Smuttynose Wheat Wine, New Holland Pilgrim's Dole, Perennial Heart of Gold
Fresh Hop IPAs
IPAs are far and away craft beer's most popular style. So long as you can get a freshly-brewed one (hop flavor fades quickly), they're good all year round.
Prime time for the style, though, is the fall. A given year's hop harvest happens around September and October, after which point they're dried out to preserve the flavors and allow the leaves to be used all year long.
Some breweries, though, take advantage of the season to create seasonal brews with fresh "wet hop" beers, made with the current year's ultra-fresh crop as soon as they come off the farm. The fresh hopped beers usually come out around the middle of fall, having been brewed just a few weeks prior.
The difference is similar to using fresh vs. dried herbs in your dinner recipe – it requires more effort, but the brighter flavors are well worth it. Unlike the palate-assaulting IPAs available year-round, wet hopped ales have a more nuanced flavor, with a delicate earthiness that's often described as more "green" than other hoppy brews.
Fort George Fresh IPA, Deschutes Hop Trip, Sierra Nevada Fresh Hop IPA, Victory Wet Hop Harvest Ale
Offbeat Pumpkin Ales
Ok, so a standard pumpkin beer isn't breaking any new ground in and of itself. They're a love-them-or-hate-them kind of thing that, thanks to seasonal creep hit the market in August, sell like crazy, and then all but disappear after October. That awkward product cycle notwithstanding, pumpkin ales are a sweet, spiced addition to the autumn season that help set the stage for shorter days, changing leaves, and eating an embarrassing amount of Halloween candy.
But we suggest looking beyond the plain old standbys, and focusing on a new breed of pumpkin-infused beers that pack the same spices into surprising styles. Southern Tier's ever-popular Pumpking is great, but their pumpkin-infused imperial stout, Warlock, is a more unique and roasty take on the autumn staple (you can check our review of it here).
Almanac, a critically-acclaimed sour beer maker, brews a sour ale with pumpkin spices that's aged in wine and bourbon barrels. Finback (our favorite local brewery) made a pumpkin IPA last year, and is brewing a coffee and pumpkin porter this time around. The Bruery makes Autumn Maple, a Belgian-style brown ale with molasses, maple syrup, autumn spices, and yams instead of pumpkin.
So while a standard pumpkin ale has its place, there are lots of other options out there for you to expand your autumn beer repertoire.
Finback Dark Entity, Almanac Sour Pumpkin, The Bruery Autumn Maple, Southern Tier Warlock, Cigar City Good Gourd, Elysian Punkuccino
Intense Belgian Ales
Belgium's strong ales have a heavy alcohol presence, sweetly malt-heavy flavors, and a richness that's perfect for drinking on frigid, windy nights.
They're loosely grouped according to strength: dubbels are usually 6-7% ABV, tripels are usually 7-9%, and quads stretch into the double digits. The higher you go, the darker and more intense the flavors become.
Oh, and what about singles, you ask? Confusingly, they don't really exist, at least as it relates to beer store shelves.
Dubbels tend to be purplish brown in color and deeply sweet, thanks to the use of caramelized beet sugar in the brewing process. That lends a rasin- and plum-like flavor, while the Belgian yeast adds a touch of spice.
Tripels diverge slightly by not caramelizing the beet sugar, causing a paler color and lighter notes of citrus and banana alongside the syrupy malt body.
Quads go back to using caramelized sugar, and are essentially dubbels with the flavors and alcohol content turned up to 11.
At any decent bottle shop, you'll likely be able to find a good mix of both imported veterans of the style and American craft interpretations. Whichever you settle on, you can expect fruity, full-bodied flavor that'll warm up even the coldest winter evening.
Rochefort 10, St. Bernadus Abt 12, Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Chimay Tripel, Ommegang Abbey Ale, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel
Any of those, plus a warm fire and a good book, will make for a damn good way to ride out the cooler months.