DRAFT PICKS: It's that time of year

At the recent Germanfest, a fellow explorer who has followed this column a good while asked if I could reprint a “lesson” written specifically with regard to pumpkin and autumn seasonal beers.

Gladly. This is certainly appropriate to the season. Enjoy.

It’s getting to be that time of year.

There is a period of time - loosely situated between just after Labor Day and just before Thanksgiving - when a lot of breweries release their seasonal offerings.

Many of these brews are tagged “harvest ales” or “harvest lager.” Many are more descriptive using “Halloween,” “pumpkin,” “autumn,” of “seasonal” in their brew names.

For those who enjoy more flavored brews, this is a great time of year. The summer shandies (with a touch of lemon) are on their way out, and the more festively spiced beers are starting to fill the shelves.

It may come as a surprise to some (who may think I’m a brown ale loving stick in the mud!), but I like the autumn spice offerings - or some of them, to be sure.

The delicate blends being turned out are often quite exciting, interesting, and refreshing.

A good number of these brews really complement a sit on the porch after raking leaves, or a cooler evening around a camp fire.

Just good stuff.

I was first introduced to the pumpkin spice genre when a friend suggested Punkin Ale by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. This was a genuinely pleasant discovery - a hefty brown ale with exceptionally subtle tones and hints of pumpkin, traditional pumpkin pie spice flavors, and a kick of brown sugary caramel swirling through the brew.

I was sold.

A good brown ale or dark lager and a well constructed blend of pumpkin pie spices can be just as pleasing as ... say ... chocolate and peanut butter.

Look, while many of us cool down in the summer with more of the orange, citrus, lemon, tones in our beer (the traditional shandy, if you please), when the seasons change - especially in the northern climes - it behooves us to change our tastes to fit the season.

There are a wide variety of pumpkin or autumn ales and lagers. I believe more than  300 are produced seasonally around the country.

Brewers struggle to come up with something just a smidge different than the next guy - just as pie bakers battle for supremacy with the addition of one pinch of a new ingredient.

Interesting stuff is mixed in with ales, lagers, and doses of pumpkin mash, things like nutmeg, cloves, goodly amounts of cinnamon, touches of ginger and even some allspice. In addition, there are often tones of hazelnut (lending a woodsy, outdoors appeal) and certainly splashes of vanilla.

To a beer purist, this may sound horrifying.

I guess I’m not a purist.

While I admit to not especially liking the more fruity brews, the pumpkin seasonals are an entirely different story. These are discreet blends that often don’t have the up-front, in-your-face blast of fruitiness of many of the berry beers. Rather, most brewmasters work the spice combos in well to gently complement their original brew recipe.

To paraphrase the fashion world,” ... accentuate the positive, and eliminate the negative.”

Enjoy this week’s suggestions.

Sacred Gruit Ale

Mount Pleasant Brewing Co.

Mount Pleasant

Sacred Gruit was donated to the cause of education by a friend. The company announces on the label that this is a “ ... pale ale brewed with yarrow, myrtle and rosemary.” I’m glad they add that up front otherwise folks would be left rubbing their heads wondering.

This is one of those rare brews that falls under the classification of an Ancient Herbed Ale. I looked up “Gruit” and found it was basically a Scottish style of beer brewed with just about anything they had at hand.

This was ... interesting. Not bad, but interesting.

The Gruit Ale pours a somewhat cloudy orange color with just a touch of head that really slips away quickly.

Right off the bat, the unusual ingredients make themselves known. At first whiff, the rosemary (an herb I absolutely love for so many things) pops out. The Myrtle too is pretty evident, although I could pick out the yarrow because, truth be known, I don’t know how the yarrow should smell!

Beyond the herb-laced earthiness, there is an underlying sweetness that really doesn’t necessarily complement this brew. There are some fruity tones, but the background sugary smell is a bit ... odd.

What seemed so sweet in the scenting reveals itself as rather sour in the tasting. That was more of what I kinda assumed would be going on here.

This is quite a tart brew. There is a sour green apple quality to Sacred Gruit and while it may have smelled sweet, it is by far and away a very dry drink.

Don’t misunderstand. The tartness is not simply an off-taste. Rather, there is a tart fruit quality to this drink that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I actually appreciated the effort, although I think I may have sampled this brew a bit warmer than it should have been served. (I would keep this quite cool in the future.)

The biggest downside of Sacred Gruit is that there is a decided aftertaste that lingers — and not a pleasant aftertaste.

I actually enjoyed this as a ‘expedition’ beer, but the aftertaste was not a good wrap to the afternoon’s session.

Narwhal Imperial Stout 

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

California

Ahhhhh ... a good hefty Russian Imperial Stout! Right up my alley!

This latest offering by Sierra Nevada (a brewing team that I love and respect) was just what was called for on a dreary Saturday afternoon along the river.

Dark. Full-bodied. Packed with taste. And mysteriously meditative.

Narwhal pours almost pure black. It is one of those that releases flashes of garnet red leaking out of the glass, but just as a reflective since no light can break through the darkness.

There is a good amount of head - a light brown, darkish beige color. While the foam doesn’t last long, there is a decent amount of lacing that lingers.

As with the better brews of this genre, Narwhal explodes chocolate, espresso and a screamin’ blend of malts in the scenting process. There is not attempt at mildness. This is Imperial Stout at its finest - filled with heavy and hefty aromas that just tickle the nose. For those who like sniffing coffee beans of a fine coffee blend, this is the brew to go to.

There is, also, a slight hint of alcohol in the scenting that fairly pops with first wash.

The tasting process is unique.

Look, I love stouts Dan Imperials, so there was no “threat” to me!  But for some, this may be a touch intimidating. I understand that. The coffee taste, the muscled malts, the somewhat boozy aftertaste may be a problem for some explorers - especially novices.

Frankly, if you’re trying a Imperial Stout for the first time, this may be a bit dicey. Having said that, I found it ultimately creamy and wildly expressive.

There is a little fruitiness tucked away in back ... behind the coffee and the less dominant hints of chocolate.

There is a little more carbonation than I generally would have expected from a brew of this style.

Narwhal, while not being the best RIS I’ve ever had, certainly could be one of my new favorites at the price line.