Austin’s breweries offer up bounty of fall flavors and styles

2:09 p.m Monday, Sept. 26, 2016 Austin360

When we think about fall — fall in the traditional sense, not Texas’ muted version — visions of leaves in vibrant reds and golds flash through our heads. We think of plump pumpkins, waiting to be carved, and of all the boots and scarves and knit sweaters we can finally wear again.

The idea of beers brewed specifically for the autumnal months similarly conjures specific imagery. What else would we want to drink during this time of year than the pumpkin ales and Oktoberfest lagers that have become prolific?

Well, think again.

Those are fall staples for craft beer lovers, but they aren’t the only styles of beer prolific in these cooler months. Also common are brown ales, black IPAs, altbiers and other German-style ales, and wet-hop brews whose hops have come straight from harvest. Breweries in Austin and across Texas have been making a mix of both the more adventurous and traditional offerings.

Pumpkin beers often go one of two ways: The taste like artificially enhanced fall spices just exploded in your mouth or like you just drank the liquefied innards of a post-Halloween jack-o’-lantern. That’s not the case with this imperial pumpkin porter from Westlake Hills brewery Strange Land, which has made its mark with off-the-beaten-path beer styles.

The Headless Gentleman is an imperial version of the brewery’s Entire Porter that has been brewed with pumpkin, “along with a generous amount of pumpkin spice, and then aged on bourbon-infused American oak,” according to Strange Land co-founder Tim Klatt.

Dark as night, it’ll taste like a rich blend of spice and vanilla, held together by a backbone of roasted malts, that makes for a perfect accompaniment to all the cool evenings we hope are ahead.

The historical Oktoberfest style — märzen, the full-bodied, malty lager of Bavarian origin that has come to define Oktoberfest celebrations here and abroad — is another popular fall beer. For the third year running, Austin Beerworks has teamed up with local beer garden Easy Tiger to produce their version; this time, they released it in one of the brewery’s striking new seasonal cans.

Pour it from the can to pick up the aroma of roasted nuts, followed through in flavor with notes of pecan praline and a slight figgy sweetness. It’ll look lighter than other märzens out there and taste a little drier. But it’s a solid example of why the Oktoberfest style remains top-of-mind this time of year.

With the drinking public finally on the outs with pumpkin ales, more breweries than ever are releasing Oktoberfest brews as their fall seasonal. In addition to Austin Beerworks, the local roster of märzen lovers includes Live Oak Brewing, Real Ale Brewing and Oasis, Texas Brewing.

This fall seasonal marks the first time that Barton Springs brewpub Uncle Billy’s Brewery & Smokehouse has been pushing a beer that isn’t one of its three canned core options. The nut brown ale — made in collaboration with Berdoll Pecan Farm in Cedar Creek — is going to be available on tap at 25 locations around town, including Uncle Billy’s.

For it, head brewer Trevor Nearburg added a total of six different malts, including Pale, Maris Otter, Crystal and Carabrown. Although “I don’t normally use that many malts in a beer, each one had a purpose,” he said. “I wanted the beer to taste like a candied pecan.”

That’s exactly what you’ll get: A medium-bodied brew with nutty, caramel and chocolate aromas that carry through in the sweet, nut-forward flavor. Although brown ales are often a hard sell because they don’t have the flash of a pumpkin ale or the tradition of a festbier, Nearburg said he wanted to make one anyway, in the hopes of changing minds about this surprisingly versatile style.

There’s a common theme among many of these autumn seasonals, despite how wide-ranging they seem: Fall beers tend to emphasize the malts. In the nebulous black IPA, however, roasted malt flavors have to share the spotlight with the bitter characteristics of hops. It’s a balance that can be hard to achieve.

North Austin’s Circle Brewing manages it with a tweaked recipe for its Tuxedo T-Shirt Black IPA, this year featuring five hops including Mosaic, Simcoe and Cascade. The increased number of one of beer’s most crucial ingredients imbues the Tuxedo T-Shirt with some of hops’ better qualities, like mild fruitiness and resinous pine notes, while also maintaining a robust build of roasted malt.

So named because “the beer is formal but likes to party,” Circle’s Black IPA is all about juxtaposition.

It’s the right kind of problem to have for a growing business: Hops & Grain had to shift its award-winning altbier from a year-round to a seasonal brew because the demand for all its products was exceeding supply. While fans of the Old World-style beer were disappointed to see it off shelves during the other seasons, Alt-eration has at least returned for the autumn months in top form.

In it, you’ll notice a maltiness at the front, leading the way to an earthy, spicy hop center delivered from noble hop varieties including Czech Saaz and Hallertauer Hersbrucker. Alt-eration’s crisp, clean finish tops off a beer that embodies fall imbibing in a deliciously subtle way.

It’s been a busy season for Austin Beerworks (actually, make that a busy year).

The Wet Hop IPA is part of the North Austin brewery’s rotating Heavy Machinery series, which highlights how IPAs can change with the seasons, and the September-brewed Wet Hop is particularly special because it’s possible only once a year.

“On the day our farmer in Oregon harvests the Centennial hops, we start brewing,” according to Austin Beerworks. “He boxes them up, kisses the label and ships them via Southwest Airlines Cargo. … So within 12 hours of being picked, the hops are dropped into the kettle. That’s a wet hop. It’s the greenest, brightest, extra juiciest flavor that you can’t duplicate any other way.”

In other words, if you’re still able to find a box of these cans, grab them up and drink them fast. America’s wet hops beers — far more common in places like the Pacific Northwest, where the hops are grown — highlight that this season isn’t just the time for carving pumpkins and raking fallen leaves. It’s the time of harvest, when so many of our crops, from hops to grapes, are ready to be picked fresh, the tangible bounty of the past year’s hard work.

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