OKTOBERFEST, THE definitive autumn beer experience, begins tomorrow with the ceremonial tapping of Spaten in downtown Munich.
If you’re going to do it up right, you’ve gotta get your lederhosen and dirndls over to Germany and celebrate by guzzling from a stein in one of the traditional Oktoberfest beer tents.
But if you can’t make it across the Atlantic, there are always plenty of well-mannered American knockoffs that faithfully observe the flavor and character of the original, orange-colored lager. Known also as Marzen beer, this is an easy drinker as the weather turns cool. It contains a bit more malt than your standard lager, and it’s aged longer for a smoother finish.
But forget that stuff this year. Call it heresy, but I’m going looking for a fall beer that isn’t an Oktoberfest.
And I don’t mean pumpkin beer.
What I’m looking for is a nice, shapely transition from the thin-bodied thirst-quenchers of summer to the strapping headbangers of winter. If it were a woman, she’d be Katie Couric – sweet and wholesome, somewhere between Paris Hilton and Etta James.
Thankfully, in recent seasons, small brewers have turned out an assortment of fall beers that fit the bill. They’re more complex than a lager, thanks to the use of ale yeast. And they’re frequently spiced with more assertive hops.
On first swallow, yes, these fall beers go down with the same sweetly smooth flavor you’d find in a typical Oktoberfest. But take a second, and you discover a distinctly American twist on a standard German beer.
Here’s a sixpack of American fall beers. They’re mostly low in alcohol (about 5 percent), so find a friend and sample ’em all. And, sure, if you need to get into the mood, feel free to play a little oompah music.
Flying Fish Oktoberfish (Cherry Hill, N.J.).
A stealth Oktoberfest, it’s an ale posing as a lager. The brewer says it’s made with Dusseldorf Alt yeast, known for producing a very clean, lightly sweet flavor. Still, this brew finishes with a tart slap. Think of it as Sister Theresa with a ruler on your knuckles.
Weyerbacher AutumnFest (Easton, Pa.).
Only a sharp-eyed label-peeler will notice the tiny “ALE” printed on the bottle. If you went by looks and taste alone, you’d think it was a classic autumn lager. This is a gorgeous beer, the color of the burnt orange leaves that fall along the river drives around Columbus Day. The aroma reminds me of those hard spiced cookies Mom used to pack in my lunchbox.
And the flavor? It’s well-balanced with just a bit of hop bitterness.
Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale (Chico, Calif.).
If there’s a father to the harvest ale style, it’s this one. Available only in limited supplies on draft, it gets its name from the late-summer harvest of fresh hops. Unlike most ales hopped with dried flowers (or even concentrated pellets), this beer’s so-called wet hops are rushed straight to the brewery and into the kettle. Take a long draw from your pint, and you get the gardenlike aroma of freshly cut grass.
Redhook Late Harvest Autumn Ale (Portsmouth, N.H.).
In the words of the brewers, this is an “homage to the autumnal equinox.” Try saying that after a couple of these bottles, which are available only in the East. This is yet another fall beer that is really a tribute to hops, balanced nicely with roasted German malt.
Southern Tier Harvest Ale (Lakewood, N.Y.).
This inventive western New York brewery had a little fun with a standard pale ale. The malt seems roasted, giving it a bigger bite than most pales (think Melrose Diner white toast, hold the butter). And that’s a nice complement to the lemony Palisades hop flowers.
It pours gold but goes cloudy in the glass, then fills your nose with a huge, hoppy aroma.
Magic Hat Jinx (Burlington, Vt.).
Dark, but that’s a deception. Yes, it’s a bit stronger than most of the others in this sixpack (7 percent alcohol), and you’ll detect some smokiness. But this medium-bodied ale goes down pleasantly. You’ll want to pull it out at sundown on the last gasp of an Indian summer afternoon.
Want to try some of these flavors? A pair of local fall festivals will pour beers on Sunday:
- Waterloo Fall Beer Festival, Waterloo Village, N.J. Taps open noon-5 p.m., $22. 973-347-0900.
- Sippin’ by the River, Penn’s Landing, Columbus Boulevard. Taps open 1-5 p.m., $25/$30 day of. 215-893-1999.