Autumn in the District means many things: golden weather, a welcome ebb in tourist traffic, fantasy football, and of course, the return of our dear friends, Master Pumpkin and Madam Spice.
You might feel them watching you on that first morning you reach for a sweater, or hear their voices in the shuffle of fallen leaves underfoot. He is the benevolent ghost of your fondest fall memories. She is the nutmeg-dusted harbinger of lattés and baked goods that have not yet come to pass. If nothing else can be said of pumpkin and spice, it is that they are a divisive combo. You’re either the type who likes to ride their seasonal wave of nostalgia (and ride it hard), or the type who likes to rail against them.
One more thing is becoming increasingly true: it’s not just the coffee mega-chains who are pandering to the pumpkin flavor craze – so are brewers. Between mid-September and mid-November, walk into any store with a decent beer selection, and you’ll find yourself promptly end-capped by pumpkin-flavored six-packs and big bottles, all sporting russet, orange and gold (the red, white and blue of autumn). For the pro-pumpkin lobby, this is cause for great rejoicing and many gleeful selfies. After all, when else can you scratch both the beer and the pumpkin itch with one deliciously festive beverage?
For the rest of us, these are grim times indeed.
Personally, I have nothing against pumpkin beers. At least not in practice. They are generally sweet, which is a taste that human beings are predisposed to crave, especially as we settle into the autumn calorie rut that prepares us mammals for the cold. Also, unlike the darker, more syrupy stouts that reign over the depths of winter, most good pumpkin beers offer a little acidity to help lift the mellow sweetness of the pumpkin into the slight mouth-burn generated by the “spice” flavors and the beer’s natural carbonation. And you know what? After a summer of hoppy, citrus-forward ales, a darker, less bitter brew can be a welcome change of pace.
It’s the principle where I generally get hung up, though. With all these pumpkin beers crawling out of the woodwork, it’s harder for the average consumer to trust that brewers are making them in good faith – that the flavor experience is more important to them than tapping a frenzied (and more importantly, seasonal) customer base ready to throw money at anything pumpkin.
So, whether you’re like me and need to take a step back from the gourd-themed mania to avoid becoming jaded, or you’re simply looking for a bit more variety in your fall beer lineup, here are a few flavors that you can turn to for relief.
If you’re in Maryland, Jailbreak Brewing Company in Laurel has you covered with their Carrot Conspiracy, an ale made with roasted carrots and fall spices. This effort will be available throughout the DMV area through late October. Stop by Old Line Fine Wine, Spirits & Bistro in Beltsville to sample this and other beers from Jailbreak.
The country pumpkin’s curvy cousin, butternut squash has been used to make some unique autumn brews. If you’re visiting Loudoun County, be sure to stop by Crooked Run Brewing in Leesburg and sample their Jake-O-Lantern ale, brewed with locally-grown butternut squash. This is a small-batch affair, so your best bet to snag a pint is to swing by their highly-rated nanobrewery. But really, who needs an excuse for a day trip out to Virginia when fall weather sets in?
Maple leaves are some of the best and brightest for fall foliage gazing, and, as luck would have it, maple sugar is also great for brewing. Saucony Creek out of Kutztown, Pa. makes Maple Mistress, a fall ale brewed with maple syrup, butternut squash and plenty of warm, dark spices. There is also some pumpkin present, but it’s not the star of the show. This intriguing beer is scheduled to hit the taps at Iron Horse Taproom and Nanny O’Briens this month.
As the weather gets cold, your impulse might be to migrate to darker, heavier brews. But what if that’s not your thing? Cranberry beers to the rescue. The fall offering from local brewery 3 Stars is Nectar of the Bogs, a light, bright cranberry saison that’s absolutely perfect for those sun-splashed autumn days when you’d feel weird drinking a brown ale or a porter. This brew will be available in bottles, cans and on tap throughout October, so be sure to head to your DC neighborhood beer outlet or visit the 3 Stars tasting room just over the line from Takoma Park to get your fix.
Smoky beers are a personal favorite of mine when it comes to keeping the autumn theme without falling into step with the pumpkin heads, offering a robust and unique flavor experience. Craft giant Stone Brewing offers a smoked porter, but if that sounds a little dark for your taste, then why not try the traditional German-smoked Märzen Rauchbier? This style is intensely smoky, but it has the body, hops and acidity to support such a powerful flavor. One of the more popular brands is Aecht Schlenkerla, and I found mine at Craft Beer Cellar on H Street.
Local Spots to Grab these Brews
Craft Beer Cellar DC: 301 H St. NE, DC; www.dc.craftbeercellar.com
Old Line Fine Wine Spirits & Bistro: 11011 Baltimore Ave. Beltsville, MD; www. oldlinewine.com
Beer and liquor stores throughout the DMV
Crooked Run Brewing: 205 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg, VA; www.crookedrunbrewing.com
Nectar of the Bogs
3 Stars Brewing Company: 6400 Chillum Pl. NW, DC; www.3starsbrewing.com
Grocery and liquor stores throughout Washington, DC