Monday marked the first day of fall, but Midwestern breweries have already been hard at work transitioning their seasonal offerings to a harvest theme. Here at Third Coast Review, we have the goods and the gourds you need to make the most of your fall drinking experience.
So what exactly is an Octoberfest beer?
Historically, breweries served Marzen at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich. This malt-forward amber lager is an excellent fall beer; rich enough to complement cooling temperatures, while light and crisp enough to knock back a few at an outdoor festival (or midmorning tailgate). Keeping with history, most American Oktoberfest beers are Marzen. And while many Chicago breweries make fine examples of the style, The Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel writes that Metropolitan’s Afterburner “is fairly universally agreed to be the best of the local Oktoberfest beers.” It’s no surprise, as Metropolitan specializes in German lagers, giving it a lederhosen-clad leg up on the competition.
If you go to Oktoberfest in Munich this September 21-October 6, however, you may be surprised by the lack of Marzen. Since the 1970s, the six breweries permitted to sell beer at Oktoberfest have been making Festbier, a pale lager, instead. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, “Paulaner first created the golden version in the mid-1970s because they thought the traditional Oktoberfest was too filling. So they developed a lighter, more drinkable, but still malty version that they wanted to be ‘more poundable.'” You can get your hand on festbier in Chicago, although it’s a bit harder to come by than Marzen. Marz made one this year, while Kinslahger actually made both Oktoberfest styles. Looking for something a bit bolder altogether? Two Brothers’ Atom Smasher Oktoberfest (named for the west suburban brewery’s neighbor, Fermi Lab) is aged in oak and weighs in at a comparatively hefty 7% abv.
A Pumpkin What?
Pumpkin spice late season also means pumpkin-flavored beer season. I’ve noticed that both fall drinks share two things in common:
- The people in my life who like PSL also enjoy pumpkin-flavored beer
- Both are something of a joke to everyone else
Let’s start with the second point: reviews of pumpkin-flavored beers frequently include phrases like “actually worth drinking,” suggesting a certain level of dismissiveness from beer writers and die-hard craft beer fans. Based on the seasonal beer section at Binny’s, however, this sentiment is not shared by much of the beer-buying public. Interested in seeing where your palate lies? Schlafly Pumpkin Ale is available in Chicagoland, and is consistently rated among the best pumpkin beers in America.
As to my first point: the most popular pumpkin beers among people in my life use a dark base beer, like a brown ale, porter or stout. It seems that the same roasted bitter notes that make pumpkin coffee drinks work for beer as well. In other words, I wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to try a pumpkin pilsner anytime soon.
Beer With a Bite
Don’t worry, hop heads. I’m not forgetting about you. Fall is the time for one of my favorite beer styles: imperial red ale. Beer, like The Force and cable news, must have balance. Imperial red ales, when executed well, strike that chord as well as any other beer styles. They showcase bold, bitter hops and sweet, rich malt in equal measure, allowing the drinker to savor all of the flavor that the beer has to offer. Last year, Revolution’s Red Skull was one of my favorite Chicago beers, and the one that my fiancé and I most enjoyed sharing. Of course, the
king count of imperial red ales is Nosferatu, from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company. Available in four-packs at Chicago area liquor stores, pick up this exceptional seasonal while you still can.
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