IN THIS TOAST … Four experts from the Twin Cities beer scene survey a squad of current releases to discover which are the best beers for autumn.
Just like the dying maple leaves, the beers we drink in autumn transition from pale yellow to red to brown. Hops are less important as our beer becomes insulated with complex, comforting malt. Root vegetables begin to creep into the mash. Whereas spring beers burst with freshness, fall beers carry the flavors of preservation thanks to smoke, spice, and oak. Fall drinking is about anticipation. It’s a middle ground between appreciation for fleeting warmth and bracing for what’s to come.
Once every quarter, our good friends at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild help us assess the best in seasonal drinking. This time, they gathered two dozen fall brews from 16 Minnesota breweries. We called in some refined palates to help sort them out: MN Craft Brewers Guild VP, Dan Justesen; Haskell’s corporate beer coordinator, Guy Gardner; sales manager and cicerone at The Four Firkins, Michael Wagner; and a veteran Heavy Table taste-tester, Tom Boland of Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits.
All beers were tasted blind, in flights of more-or-less similar brews, without participant knowledge of either brewery or style. We awarded three gold medals for “exceptional beers, remarkable for their style and for autumn, and ones you would go out of your way to find and recommend.”
Here are your best bets for autumn imbibing:
Gold Medal and Best In Show: Schell’s Black Forest Cherry
We’ve previously raved about Schell’s fourth Noble Star release, and this tasting confirms its superiority. Our panel was blown away by a mountain of ripe fruit on the nose and the way the brew’s tartness dances on the edge of vinegary oblivion, only to be brought back to a harmonious balance of fruit and acid. “Gorgeous,” one taster noted, “like a sour-cherry pie.” We’ll drink it for dessert as long as our stocks allow.
Gold Medal, First Runner-Up: Lucid Ora Amber Ale
The surprise of the tasting, Ora struck gold with our panel for its complex notes of toffee, sweet smoke, hazelnut, and chocolate. A warming, comforting brownish ale that’s like wearing your softest hoodie sweatshirt and hugging your spouse in front of a campfire.
Gold Medal, Second Runner-Up: Dangerous Man Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Exceptional balance and noticeably well made. The spice character was present without being overbearing; the pumpkin firmly announces its arrival and floats away at just the right volume. The extra alcohol might be the ticket to a good pumpkin beer. When its heft takes over the finish, the gourd flavor becomes secondary, yet memorable.
Silver Medals: Our panel bestowed four silver medals for being “great fall beers, with quality that exceeds others in their style, and ones to highly recommend.”
Our panelists’ favorite Oktoberfest was found to contain a unique, tropical, passion-fruit-like hop character. This was a hoppy Oktoberfest done well — enough bitterness to add intriguing flavor, but not so pronounced it distracts from the style. Complex and inviting.
Fulton Beer, The Libertine
A brew that makes you excited for autumn. The aroma suggests sweetness, but the broad-shouldered body is rich and balanced with luscious malt and hints of an endearing vanilla / black pepper thing happening toward the finish. It’s the very beer embodiment of crunchy leaves beneath your boots.
Summit Unchained: Herkulean Woods
A curveball of a brown lager, but a successful one, nonetheless. Our tasters picked up marmalade citrus amid the caramel richness and spice of a beer we’ve been drinking quite happily for the last month. As it warms, the sweetness evolves. A beer to ponder.
Excelsior Brewing ‘Heavyweizen’ Imperial Hefeweizen
A beer for the late October sunshine. Yeasty, cider-like and cloudy, with some white pepper and citrus in an ester-filled, wheat-heavy body. A touch of sweetness on the finish prods you to take a return sip, and another, and then another, and all of a sudden it’s gone, and you’re left to wonder why bulky wheat beers aren’t more of a regular thing in autumn.
Bronze Medals: A final five pieces of hardware were given to “solid beers with unique qualities among similar brews, and ones to recommend.”
Bent Brewstillery El Guerrero Stout
Commented one passionate taster: “There are certain places and times for the right beer. With a cigar, around a campfire, this beer would be absolutely perfect.” Maybe not something we’d drink over and over, but this bulky, smoky stout with a hint of chili pepper would be the perfect nightcap to chase the cold away.
Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill Brown Ale
This textbook brown ale reminded one of our tasters of aebleskiver, with comforting flavors of toast and sweet vanilla glaze on the finish. It’s heavy and unafraid to throw its weight around but ultimately smooth and manageable.
Lift Bridge Oktoberfest
Our tasters were unanimous in their respect for this Oktoberfest: clean and dry, a beer you want to drink with your father. Approachable, fresh, just enough hops to balance out a profound malt character. It’s exactly the beer we expect from the style.
We noticed some wonderful fruity notes in Summit’s Oktoberfest. Silky and soft compared with similar efforts, and another stylistically faithful achievement for the venerable St. Paul brewers.
Tin Whiskers Schottky Pumpkin Ale
The most gourd-heavy brew of our tasting. We noticed a crusty, baked apple pie thing going on, with pronounced cinnamon spice mingling about a fine texture. Downright enjoyable.
The Rest Of The Tasting: The ten other beers in the tasting ranged from good to decent to unremarkable to forgettable.
Badger Hill Foundation Stout
A smoky aroma followed by a lighter mouthfeel, faint roast, and a little astringency. It’s a fun stout, balanced and agreeable in most every respect.
Finnegan’s Dead Irish Poet Stout
A touch sweeter than the Foundation Stout. We’re all about this new Finnegan’s release. Some cocoa nib bitterness leads into a voluminous yet smooth body.
The brew Heavy Table proclaimed last year to be the best Oktoberfest in town fared well among our tasters. It has an endearing caramel—bread-dough—cereal-grain thing going on. Nice bite, light body, a perfectly serviceable marzen for the season.
A nice astringency and subdued hop character keeps the focus where it needs to be. A noticeable grain huskiness with a clean finish. It’s precisely the Oktoberfest you hope for.
Great Waters Therese’s Meadow Oktoberfest
Very malty, initially sweet caramel gives way to a thinner body. Certainly nothing wrong with this beer, though our tasters didn’t notice enough personality to warrant a fast return visit.
Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma
It begins with a wonderful spice bouquet, deeply comforting autumnal notes, some great color, and a fun, chocolate-raisin-like approach. It transitions, though, with very little body to back up that promise and ends whisper-quiet. Our panel tasted potential, but deemed it a beer-in-progress. They’d revisit for its drinkability, not necessarily for its overall flavor.
Brau Brothers Test Positive Amber Sour Ale
Tannic, kind of boozy, and a bit standoffish. This is a beer that doesn’t endear itself quickly, but as it warms, it collects some elusive fig, plum, and toast flavors. It’s burly, oaky, and demanding of one’s attention. All told, it’s a riddle of a beer, and we much prefer Brau Brothers’ Bancreagie Sour Peated Ale, which in our summer tasting we found spectacular.
Not a bad beer by any stretch, but incredibly hoppy for an Oktoberfest. Our panelists thought the hoppiness distracted from a robust malt character. Lingering bitterness, verging on pale ale levels, made this Oktoberfest a conundrum.
Bent Brewstillery Where the Wild Beers Are, Rose Gose
Lemony, thin, and fleeting. Some of our tasters enjoyed the funky pucker of this sour. Others used tasting notes like “footy” and “goat.”
612Brew Shere Khan Indian Spiced Strong Ale
A beer that tastes like confusion. A heavy dose of hops clashes with a mountain of spice. Bitter on bitter, it’s an idea that sounds better on paper. We know 612Brew produces better beer than this. It makes us wonder where the breakdown that brought Shere Khan to market happened.