I spotted it just after midnight on July 31, lurking in my local bodega: a bottle of Southern Tier Brewing’s Pumking. For many, the first pumpkin-beer sighting of the season is a pleasure, akin to spotting an early fall leaf twisting through the air. For others, it is a nuisance, a sign of gimmickry or “seasonal creep,” in which autumn ales infiltrate summer like kudzu. For me, it is a reminder that coolers will soon contain orange-and-brown Pantone spectrums of sweeter, maltier, spicier beers, which — despite their popularity — I usually don’t like to drink.
I can hear the accusations already. Beer snob! But I blame my palate rather than elitism. (If pumpkin ales and Oktoberfest lagers strike you as more bounty than blight, please, drink on.) When your preferred beverages are often dry and bitter and you aren’t quite ready for wintery porters and stouts, it’s easy to feel trapped between warm-weather beers and a sugar-and-spice brick wall.
Yet I’ve found a way out, a quiet provider of seasonal pleasure. My rescuer is a sort of bumbling Don Quixote: the humble, not especially trendy brown ale.
First, however, some words about the usual autumn suspects, chief among them the pumpkin ale. The cult of the gourd has a robust membership — Maine’s Shipyard Brewing was the country’s 15th-largest craft brewery last year in terms of sales volume, thanks largely to its flagship Pumpkinhead Ale — but no style of craft beer provokes more debate.
“I can’t stand these [expletive] pumpkin beers,” Shane Welch, president of Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery, told me. “What started out as genuinely creative has turned into a total farce.”
Then there are the Oktoberfests, usually German-style Marzens, the slightly boozy lagers long associated with Munich’s celebration. Named after the month of March, when pre-modern brewers stockpiled beers that could last until their seasonal activity resumed in the fall, these are malty yet drinkable and can be delicious. After one or two bottles, though, the oompah music can lose its oomph.
Other styles are marketed as fall beers, of course. Some of the best might be the “fresh hop” ales, in which brewers use just-picked hops rather than dried ones, lending extra nuances to the notes of resin and citrus that these pinecone-shaped flowers provide. And I can’t leave out the hard-to-categorize creations (cranberry ale, anyone?) united mainly by color scheme and labels bearing the word “harvest.”
But those outliers, some more reputable than others, are largely overshadowed by the pumpkins and Oktoberfests, reminders that in the world of craft beer, the term “seasonal” has become less an adjective and more a noun with a limited range of definitions. It’s an odd state of affairs. Wine lovers never find Beaujolais and Rieslings filling two-thirds of the shelves. Cocktail enthusiasts aren’t drowned in spiced rum. Better, I think, for consumers to drink what they like than to always accept what the industry pushes.
So I urge you to consider the most seasonal beer that is rarely branded a “fall seasonal”: the brown ale.
The iconic example is Newcastle, although the style, a product of early 20th-century British brewing, is now more of a continuum. Brown ales are diverse in flavor if not appearance: some are nutty and raisiny, others bitter like India pale ales, still others so roasty that they almost taste like stouts. They are generally divided between lighter, sweeter “English brown ales” and bolder, hoppier “American brown ales.” Another shared attribute: They’ve been eclipsed by other beers.
“I think it is a bit of an overlooked style,” says Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing. “Beers that aren’t hoppy IPAs seem to be a little less appreciated with craft customers these days.” (A case in point: At least in New York, where I live, it is much harder to find Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale this season than its new Flipside Red IPA.) Still, he said, the style has a lot going for it, including its food-friendliness: “It does go well with a lot of the fall flavors.”
This year I’m rooting for the underdogs, whose strengths were on full display when I organized a recent tasting. Worthwhile “English” examples, though only the first is from Britain, were Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale and Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale. The former is a widely available classic that brought to mind prunes, toffee and toasted bread, while the latter is a simpler offering with mild notes of cocoa, rye and earthy hops.
In the “American” camp, Sixpoint’s Brownstone was distinguished by the ease with which it went down. It was lighter-bodied yet not watery, with a graininess that faded into moderate hoppiness. (Unfortunately, it is also set apart by its scarcity; Sixpoint has brewed it less frequently in recent months.) Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale, in contrast, was darker than cola, with stoutlike flavors of coffee and bitter chocolate.
The clear winner, however, was Brekle’s Brown, from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. It was smooth and nutty, with hints of maple, caramelized apple, coffee, pine and an apricot-like fruitiness. “Richness and complexity without heaviness,” its label says. That’s exactly what brown ales can offer.
Fromson is the author of the e-book “Finding Shakespeare,” published in August by the Atavist, and a Web copy editor at the New Yorker. He writes Beer monthly.