If the unseasonably cool Northeast Ohio weather hasn't yet stimulated thoughts of tailgating and falling leaves, a glance at the new-release shelf at any craft beer store will. Like back to school sales, seasonal beers come out earlier and earlier each year as brands scurry for precious shelf space. By August, summer suds practically have gone extinct, replaced by heartier styles with higher ABV and cold-weather friendly flavor. While some breweries defy convention, the two most prominent autumn beer styles are the Oktoberfest Märzen and pumpkin ale.
Märzen is a traditional German beer. Its name translates to March, referencing the month the style was brewed. Why March rather than October? Before refrigeration revolutionized beer production, Bavarian brewers discovered that lagers brewed in summer would inevitably turn sour. Once the heat of summer dissipated, brewing could begin again, but only a strong and malty beer could last from spring until the first fall fermentation was finished. The full-flavored, toasty Märzen was the perfect solution. However, contrary to common assumptions, the style was not created for Oktoberfest. The first Oktoberfest was a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig; Märzen was simply the celebratory beer. Over time, the beer has become synonymous with the celebration and today Märzen is often referred to as Oktoberfest or festbier.
What are the best examples of Märzen available in Northeast Ohio? Only breweries located in Munich are allowed to participate in the official Oktoberfest, so Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbräu make for an authentic celebration. Other locally imported German choices include Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen and Weihenstephaner Festbier. Here in Ohio, notable regional examples include Bells Oktoberfest, Heavy Seas Prosit and Victory Festbier. Cleveland's own Great Lakes brews one of the most highly regarded examples of the style. The Brew Kettle just released Oktofest in bottles and Fat Heads will bottle and release Oktoberfest Lager shortly. Thirsty Dog Barktoberfest is another fine bottled example of the style, while Willoughby Dirndl Dropper is the area's best tap-only offering.
While Märzen has filled steins for centuries, pumpkin ale only recently has soared in popularity. The style is uniquely American; early Colonial settlers substituted pumpkin flesh when malted barley wasn't available. The resulting brew is a member of the "field beer" category because the brewing process includes vegetables as an adjunct. However, there is a wide range of styles and interpretations of the perfect pumpkin ale, starting with ingredients. While the actual pumpkin used in these seasonal ales ranges from freshly harvested to canned puree, it's the spices used that are the star of this show. Ginger, clove, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon create a beverage reminiscent of fresh-baked pumpkin pie.
Which pumpkin ales approach perfection? Southern Tier's Pumking is aptly named. The 8.6-percent ABV phenom has attracted royal praise for its extraordinary flavor and smooth finish. The brewery also is releasing Warlock Pumpkin Stout in September and the anticipation among the "court subjects" is palpable. Weyerbacher Pumpkin also commands respect for well-integrated flavor and hidden alcohol. Epic and DC Brau collaborated on Fermentation Without Representation, a pumpkin porter with decadent chocolate notes while Uinta Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale is aged in oak barrels for six months and offers hints of vanilla and bourbon. Locally, Fat Heads will release Spooky Tooth in bottles in early September while Frog's Hollow will soon make its way from Hoppin' Frog Brewery to local shelves. Visitors to Market Garden may be lucky enough to taste Franklin Castle Pumpkin Ale poured from a real pumpkin. Meanwhile, Great Lakes and Thirsty Dog, which both use fresh, farm-grown pumpkins in their ales, hold off their releases until late October at the earliest.
It might seem early for these styles, but many sell quickly, so it's a good idea to stock up for the cool days ahead. Despite the cool temps, the seasonal craft beer selection at local stores and pubs is heating up.