Two weeks ago pumpkin ales began popping up on the shelves of my local grocery store. August 17 marked (for me) the beginning of pumpkin beer’s seasonal creep for 2015. That this creep starts earlier and earlier every year is not news to you, but what you may not know is that you have many, many alternatives to pumpkin beer at this time of year. If you like pumpkin spice frosting, lattes, whipped cream, cookies, and the like, that’s great, but for those who don’t, read on to find out more about some options, many of them local, that might interest you.
These beers are brewed with hops that have been recently harvested and don’t undergo drying (hence the “wet”). In some cases, the beers are brewed a day or just hours after the cones have been freed from their bines.
Lost Rhino went a hop-pickin’ at Whipporwill Manor Farm "in God's Country", Madison County, Virginia. The team brought a van full of hops back to the brewery, and the 234 pounds of hops went into a pale ale. According to Lost Rhino's Jasper Akerboom, "We went down on Monday, picked Tuesday, and brewed Wednesday."
Bluejacket's Darling Buds series provides another great example of wet-hopped beers. For the fall 2015 iteration, their IPA is brewed with 250 pounds of Cascade from Whipple Creek Farms in Brownsburg, Virginia. Bluejacket head brewer Josh Chapman describes the process:
“This year's Cascades were used in SO many different ways, from the boil to the hopback, and we even got another run of 50 pounds in for a wet hop dry hopping! It was really great to continue building a relationship with a local farm like Whipple Creek for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest [things] for me was having an opportunity to watch the same purveyors and same product change over the course of a year. This year's hops were much more focused towards light citrus and spice, as last year's came across much more berry fruit. Both years we've used them I've found them to be very soft and complex, multifaceted and not one-noted. I've not used Pacific Northwest wet Cascade, but have used Citra, Equinox, and Mosaic, and while all were great, they were very upfront with one or two different notes…I've really found the local wet hops to be less potent but more complex.”
Be they amber, brown, or black, several breweries within the DMV are producing award-winning lagers worthy of exploration and revisiting. The 2014 results of the Great American Beer Festival did not treat the DMV as well as 2013 where Port City's Oktoberfest took silver in category 35 Vienna-Style Lager and category 36, German-Style Märzen, was dominated by locals with Lost Rhino taking gold with Rhinofest, Sweetwater Tavern taking silver with Octoberfest, and Flying Dog taking bronze with Dogtoberfest.
Märzen comes from the German word for March, which is when the beer was traditionally brewed (so that it could be lagered in cool places over the summer). As the style is commonly called Oktoberfest and available in October, many local brewers brew theirs in the summer for fall release. While it is uncommon for a present-day brewery to brew their Märzen in March, this is exactly what Lost Rhino's head brewer Favio Garcia did this year. Garcia writes, "We did brew a batch of Märzen back in March. I blended it in with the other batches of Rhin’Ofest, so every taste of our fest beer has some traditional Märzen."
Another interesting take on lager from Lost Rhino is Tmavy, a Czech-style dark lager. Garcia writes, "We are currently out of Tmavy, but we will have a new batch this fall as soon as we catch up on Pilsner."
Not to be outdone, Devils Backbone also features a Märzen (O’Fest) and a Schwartz Bier (German black lager), both of which are perfect for autumn.
Staff Picks for Pumpkin Beer Alternatives
Jake Berg: "This sounds about right to me: fresh/wet hopped beers and Märzens as an alternative. You could also throw in some brown ales (Bell's Best Brown is always around) and dark lagers (Devils Backbone, Lost Rhino), and there's always cutesy stuff like Flying Dog's Secret Stash and non-pumpkin beers that use other squash.
Emily Snoek: "I agree about Bell's Best Brown. It's my favorite fall beer because the minimal sweetness to it is balanced perfectly with the malt body. And it tastes nothing like pumpkin, which is great. I like Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale for similar reasons. It's the perfect complement to a flannel shirt or cable-knit sweater–incredibly tasty, a little bit sweet, and surprisingly hoppy."
Paul Josuns: "I'm a Harvest Ale fan. Founders, Sierra Nevada, Troegs. The freshest hops are perfect for early fall days when it is still warm out, but you can feel fall breeze creeping in. I've noticed the malt bills of these beers are often still crisp, yet bready/biscuity enough to make them stand out from the spring and summer hoppy beers. I can also be tempted by the occasional stout in the early fall. Low ABVs are typically appropriate for tailgating (or drinking on the couch) and have some chocolate and coffee notes if you find yourself needing a beer for the late morning tent and grill set up or to go with food.”
Chris Van Orden: “Fall is dark lager season for me. Darker malts hint at the changing of the seasons, but clean lager yeast and moderate ABV keep things refreshing in a part of the country that still sees 90 degree days in September. I’m partial to Lost Rhino Tmavy and Union Blackwing – I’d love to see bars swap out their third or fourth IPA line for either one of these beauties. Starr Hill’s been killing it recently, so I’m looking forward to trying this year’s Jomo Vienna Lager, as well.”
Bill DeBaun: "I have to say RIP Sierra Nevada Tumbler, which was the quintessential fall beer. Real bummer that it didn't sell (it was a lightly smoked brown ale for those who don't remember it). I'll echo everything above but also add in darker saisons. I know folks think about saison as a spring and summer beer, but something like an Existent from Stillwater really puts me in an autumnal mood as well. It has a maltier, still crisp, profile with some spiciness. I'll probably drink one when I go pumpkin picking."
Regardless of if your beer is local or from afar, it should stand out and fit the season. Speaking of local, Bluejacket brewer Josh Chapman chimes back in with the following thought:
“Just because something is local doesn't mean it's good. However, when it comes to these locally grown/sourced ingredients, especially where the brewer has input into the growing/cultivation/harvesting side of things, that's where local beer should have a huge following. It's the burgeoning of the terroir of beer that I find so exciting. With so many new breweries opening up, even killer IPAs [that are] all using the same hops from Yakima and Australia and New Zealand are going to have a harder and harder time differentiating themselves. There's a win-win opportunity the more these local ingredients and purveyors pop up. The consumer gets to see what Cascade grown in the soil of the Shenandoah, and blackberries from Lancaster, PA, and rhubarb from Alexandria have to offer in a beer that no other local can lay claim to. In turn, the more these things succeed, and the more our community rallies, the more demand and thus impetus there is for these local purveyors to continue both opening up shop and honing their craft.”
So go forth and explore. Don't settle for pumpkin beer if you'd rather have something nuanced and hoppy, or nuanced and malty, or a beer that is black as night but tastes like a Wallonian farmhouse, or one that smells like the inside of a smokey pub in Prague. There’s plenty to be excited about no matter the season, and fall is no different.