By Jason Notte
We've done quite a bit of beer sampling this season, but we feel we may have left you with the impression all fall beers taste either like pumpkin pie or a fistful of harvest hops.
That couldn't be further from the truth.
While the time for fresh-hop beers and Oktoberfest is nearly done and pumpkin beers have until about Thanksgiving before they're pushed aside for wintry holiday offerings, there are some autumn beers that fall between the two just perfectly. If you haven't noticed already, this is the time of year the beers get a little darker, the flavors get a little maltier and the finish gets just a bit warmer.
There are beers that do all of that without overdosing on hops or smelling like a spice rack. We went through the best of the rest and found 10 fall-friendly beers to get you through the rest of the season:
Northeast breweries can become a bit of an afterthought in the summer and winter months, but fall is when this region comes through as beautifully as its foliage. Much like a Samuel Adams Octoberfest, Hooker's Octoberfest uses a little bit of creative license with the Oktoberfest lager style. It's not cooled in caves, it's not being downed to clear out the summer stock. It's just loaded with toasted malt, blessed with a saccharine-sweet maple aroma and teeming with subtle caramel flavor. It's a mild, malty way of welcoming a season stuffed with beers of this sort, but Hooker has perhaps the best handle on this distinctly New England Octoberfest take.
The word "harvest" is a bit tricky in beer parlance. For some brewers, it's connected to the hop harvest and is a signal that a hoppy, citrusy brew awaits. Long Trail goes the other way on that and applies its Harvest tag to a mild, malty brown ale. It flows over a drinker's palate with hints of brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup and roasted nuts and, at 3.6 percent ABV, is just mild enough to warrant more than one by the fire on a crisp Vermont evening.
Weyerbacher's far better known around this time of year for its imperial pumpkin ale, but its interpretation of an Oktoberfest style also warrants some attention.
Closer to an American amber or red than a Vienna lager, the copper Autumn Fest blends Vienna and Munich malts in a stab at Bavarian authenticity. It doesn't quite get there, but the roasted malt flavor, carmel finish and light feel are much softer than its 5.4 percent ABV potency would let on. It's not a heavy-hitting fall beer, but it's not offensive, either. Just a mild sipper that's a good transition to winter porters and stouts.
Perhaps better known for its year-round Edmund Fitzgerald Porter and winter seasonal Blackout Stout, Cleveland's own Great Lakes gives folks all the hop bitterness of a fresh hop beer in this sneaky red ale.
While red ales usually drift into milder territory, the vampire-themed Nosferatu was built around a "beer with bite" gimmick that demanded a hop-heavy, blood-red brew. While still containing some of the sweet, biscuity notes of a milder, maltier fall beer, Nosferatu's better known for a powerful hop aroma and flavor and hefty 8 percent ABV that restricts it to four-packs. Unlike certain sparkly Northwest vampires we can name, Nosferatu clearly means you some less-than-chaste harm.
At a brewery that already packs its fall lineup with 22-ounce bottles of Pumpking imperial pumpkin ale and Harvest English-style extra special bitter, it takes a lot to stand out.
Fortunately for the Imperial Oat Stout, Southern Tier's Blackwater line of seasonal stouts doesn't require a whole lot to grab folks' attention. After a year of mocha, java, chocolate and creme brulee stouts, Southern Tier unleashed its Imperial Oatmeal Stout in September and let the big beer speak for itself. Smelling of roasted malt as any good stout should, Imperial Oat finishes with flavor that bends toffee, oatmeal and nut into a dark and powerful 10.8 percent ABV brew. While such potent stouts are often reserved for later months, Southern Tier isn't a firm believer in transitional beers. If you have a great stout ready now, why not pour it?