Seasonal Beer Review with Hans and Joe

By Hans and Joe

Editor’s note: With the explosive growth of craft beers as evidenced by some local restaurants and Hans and Joebars offering over 10 different taps and a multitude of bottled beers, we thought it was time to have an expert provide some insight into the world of craft brewing. For that we present Hans Maldonado, a certified beer judge, and his sidekick, Dr. Joe Lauer, a local cardiologist who has developed a great deal of knowledge on craft brewing from self-study and frequent tastings. Our plan is to have Hans and Joe write periodically on the seasonal brews being offered locally during the year.

Seasonal Beers of Fall
By Hans Maldonado with an assist from Dr. Joe Lauer
As the sun sets earlier and the nightfall comes sooner, that usually signals the appearance of malt-driven and sometimes higher alcohol beers. Since the choices available to today’s beer consumer are vast and can vary greatly in character, I hope this guide will be helpful when selecting one of the seasonal craft beers.

An example of the explosion of craft beers.
An example of the explosion of craft beers.

History of the style
The first Oktoberfest celebration began on October 12, 1810 and was not a beer festival. It was a celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. During this first Oktoberfest, the citizens of Munich were invited to partake in the festivities which featured a horse race at the end of the celebration. The party was such a grand time that it was repeated on an annual basis. Over the years, the festival was moved to an earlier date to assure better weather, the horse races were dropped and the celebration was lengthened. Today Oktoberfest in Munich is a modern example of bacchanalian revelry taken to the extreme.

The modern version of Oktoberfest/Märzen beers took form around 1841, and a significant portion of the credit is due to the Spaten Brewery. A proper Oktoberfest is brewed as a lager and should possess great clarity. Hop character is mild, and the initial flavor should be malty in nature, although the beer should finish dry. Mouthfeel should be of medium body and moderate carbonation. “Smooth” would be a proper description of the drinkable nature of these beers. Alcohol content should range between 4.8% and 5.7% ABV.

Joe and I got our hands on a few of the Oktoberfests available locally, and here is some of our resulting conversation as well as a couple of reviews:
Joe: Oktoberfest doesn’t usually excite me as a style. It is too simple.
Hans: It is exactly that relative simplicity that I appreciate, especially in these days of over-the-top ales being produced quite extensively here in America.
J: I can see your point, but when I want a beer that will inspire me to contemplate the meaning of existence, Oktoberfest is not the style I would look for.
H: You could get there if you drank 10 of them!
J: I guess I can appreciate the approachability of Oktoberfest.
H: As a bartender who does not always deal with rabid beer consumers looking for the next greatest and most revolutionary beer of all time, I know that Oktoberfest is usually a beer that I can recommend and pour for almost any beer drinker with little risk of rejection.

Upland Oktoberfest
Upland’s Oktoberfest is a golden copper color with excellent clarity and a constant flow of bubbles traveling from the bottom of the glass to the top of the beer. The aroma is a combination of proofing bread dough and baking bread that is about 3/4 of the way finished. The flavor is of toasty bread and some caramel malt with the addition of a faint hop bitterness and flavor. The beer is medium bodied with a dry finish.

Sun King Oktoberfest
Sun King Oktoberfest is a light copper color with the total clarity demanded by the style. It possesses a steady flow of CO2 going from bottom to top. Aroma is mildly earthy, perhaps from the noble hop varietals with a hint of toasty cereal grains. There are some toasty notes and very little hop bitterness. The beer finishes cleanly with a light-medium body.

Upland and Sun King are not the only local producers of the Oktoberfest/Märzen style. BIER Brewery makes a world class Märzen, and there are plenty of other excellent examples of the style made in the Midwest.

Pumpkin Ales
Modern pumpkin ales are a distinctly American creation. In this Golden Age of craft brewing in America, there are no limits recognized by our maverick brewmasters. Therefore, to use what is, for many, the key ingredient in a much beloved dessert and to use it in a perhaps unusual medium is a logical step in the evolution of the American craft beer scene.

In the time when America was still comprised of British colonies, pumpkins and other vegetables were used as a source of sugar in the fermentation process; however, the end result would have been quite different from the pumpkin ales found at your local craft beer store.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, pumpkin ales are almost sure to evoke one feeling or the other. If you are looking for a sometimes spicy, often complex and usually robust and filling beer, then this may be a style worth investigating.

Joe and I sat down over a few pumpkin ales, and here is a snippet of our conversation along with a few reviews:
Hans: I am very hot or cold towards pumpkin ales. I am likely to be ambivalent to most pumpkin ales; however, I always taste with an open and subjective palate.
Joe: Actually I am often fond of the style. Pumpkin ales usually bring big and spicy flavors that remind me of pumpkin pie, and as you might expect, these beers usually pair pretty well with pumpkin pie.
H: That brings up an important point in this discussion. Some pumpkin ales do not contain any pumpkin in their production, but rather they simply use spices typically used in pumpkin pie. I prefer those pumpkin ales that use pumpkin in the mash and take a soft approach to the use of pumpkin pie spices.
J: I agree with you about the use of pumpkin, but I enjoy the spices, even when used liberally.

Schlafly Pumpkin Ale
Pours a true copper color with a high level of clarity. Clove, cinnamon and nutmeg abound on the nose. The flavor in addition to the pumpkin pie spices reveal the distinct but subtle sweetness of pumpkins. There are hops in this beer, but they are relegated to the role of background noise; the spices fill the role typically played by hops which act as a counterweight to the sweetness of the malted barley, and in this case, the pumpkin. You will perceive very little, if any, hop character in this beer. Mouthfeel is full bodied and moderately carbonated although the fullness of body mitigates the perceived carbonation. Finish is long and complex. The drinkability of this beer is tempered only by your tolerance for spice and alcohol, as it clocks in at 8% ABV.

Rivertown Pumpkin Ale
Pours a deep brown with shades of red around the borders. The nose is full of pumpkin pie spice. The flavor is definitely tilted towards the spice end of the pumpkin ale flavor spectrum, but the pumpkin flavor is there. Just barely. The finish is drier and more crisp and clean than many offerings in this style. This may be due to the light body and moderately high carbonation compared to other samples of this style.

Other local pumpkin ales to look for include Flatjack Pumpkin Ale from Flat 12 Bierwerks and an offering from BIER Brewery. If you look beyond the borders of Indiana, there are pumpkin ales worthy of tasting from Brooklyn Brewery, New Holland Brewing Company and Southern Tier Brewing Company among others.

A note for hopheads
Hops are harvested once per year. In the Northern Hemisphere, this occurs during the fall, and that means there will soon be wet hop IPAs (India Pale Ale) available. Hops are very susceptible to mold, so they must be dehydrated quickly after harvest. Some are left as whole cones while others are processed into pellets or plugs. The drying process protects the hops from spoilage, but it also removes some of the fragrances and flavors from the hops.

To take advantage of a recent hop harvest, a very small percentage of hops are hustled from field to brewery, where brewers await with kettles lit, hoping to utilize the precious ingredient that is the wet hop. For many breweries, there is little guarantee of acquiring these hops, and as a result, many do not produce a wet hop IPA every year. Even the ones who do produce such an IPA cannot produce a substantial amount. Since hops are mostly water, and the removal of water tends to concentrate flavors, brewers must use more hops to achieve the desired effect.

Using more wet hops also means adding more water which must be accounted for in the recipe. Brewing with wet hops can be a technically difficult undertaking, to say nothing of the effort, expense and sometimes luck involved in acquiring the ingredients.

There are a few breweries that produce a wet hop IPA every year. Some of these include Three Floyd’s Broo Doo, Founder’s Harvest Ale, and perhaps the largest producer of wet hop IPA in the Midwest, Two Brothers Brewing Company’s Heavy-Handed IPA. Sometimes wet hop IPAs are called harvest ales, but be careful as the term “harvest ale” does not necessarily imply the use of wet hops.

I hope this has provided, at least, a starting point for your exploration of the craft seasonal beers you will find locally this fall. Enjoy!