Brews for Fall & Oktoberfest

Turn to Maltier Selections

As surely as the leaves turn red, gold and brown in the fall, the craft beer selection gets maltier.

It makes sense. As the days get colder, we start turning to soups and stews to provide warming, nourishing comfort. Richer, sweeter, maltier beers have a corresponding effect – and, true to the ever diversifying nature of the craft beer industry – a wealth of such hearty styles are brewed at this time of year.

Even normally pale lagers assume a bronzed shade at the start of fall, with the appearance of Märzen-style lagers. This is the traditional beer drank at the world’s most famous beer festival, Munich’s Oktoberfest (and you may well see this style marketed as “Oktoberfest” beer).

Slightly stronger than a standard lager at around 5.5% ABV, Märzen is a robust style that has an enhanced, toasted, bready, malt profile. It should still finish crisp, which makes for an immensely satisfying pint – or one-litre stein, if you want to keep it traditional.

On that traditional note, any pork dish is an absolute lock with Märzen, from a pot roast to grilled chops or the classic bratwurst, whose spices and juiciness marry beautifully with the beer’s lightly spicy hop profile and rounded body. Try it and you’ll realize why the Germans have been pairing them for centuries.

Maltier styles traditionally hold sway further north in Europe, particularly in Scotland, a country with a long brewing history. That said, Scottish beer styles are still something of a rarity in North America, perhaps because they’re generally malt-forward and lower in alcohol, as opposed to the hop-forward, higher-ABV beers that power much of the industry on this continent.

However, the fall months see some breweries release a “wee heavy”, a stronger Scottish style (usually around 6.5% ABV) that’s rich with caramel, toffee, and dark fruit flavours and has just enough hops to balance the sweetness. Many assume these ales should also be smoky to mirror the peaty profile of Islay malt whiskies but, historically, peat-smoked malt has no place in beer.

When brewed traditionally, a wee heavy – or Scotch ale, or 90 shilling, as it’s also marketed – makes for a splendid snifter, and a luxurious accompaniment to roast beef, lamb or game.

The UK is the origin of another two classic malty styles that make for a hearty pint in cooler times. Porter first became popular in 1700s London, but rose to prominence when Victorian brewers began to master the art of roasting malted barley to ever darker degrees. They found that the darker malts lent their beer a deeper colour and delicious flavours such as coffee and chocolate.

Demand for stronger beer led to the rise of the “stout porter”, which soon overtook its predecessor in popularity and became known simply as stout. Guinness, of course, is the classic example of this inky style. Craft brewers are showing the enormous variety of flavours that can be eked out of dark roasted grains, such as nuts, molasses and tar as well as a range of light-to-intense chocolate and coffee notes.

The classic pairing for porter and stout is oysters, but both are versatile when it comes to food, and can match up to barbecued foods, meat pies, and even light desserts.

Many craft brewers increase their malt even further with “imperial” versions of porters and stouts. “Imperial” generally denotes the beer is richer, more flavourful and stronger – many imperial stouts top 10% ABV. They generally have hugely complex malt profiles running from toasted grain to thick notes of molasses. Their strength means they’re also popular styles to age in barrels in which they take on an oaky depth and nuances of the liquor that the vessel previously contained (bourbon barrels are most common).

Meant to be sipped and savoured, imperial porters and stouts are fantastic dessert beers, offering a delicious contrast to crème brulee and fruit tarts, and a decadent complement to dark chocolate cake.

A much more modern fall style that has appeared amid the craft brewing revolution is the spiced pumpkin ale, which has become common in the run-up toward Thanksgiving and Halloween. It’s become a little maligned of late, partly because many examples don’t actually contain any pumpkin – just a mix of pumpkin pie spices such as clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. However, when done well, these dark-amber ales make for a delicious, slow-sipping treat for chilly evenings. Look for pumpkin ales that actually list pumpkin in the ingredients – it adds a rich fleshiness to the body. The spices should be warming, but subtle. It’s more of a dessert style of beer, so keep any pairings simple–just a few scoops of rich vanilla ice cream will be tasty.

Face it, you can drink hop-forward beer all year round. So why not take a break this fall, make the most of the seasonal releases, and investigate the delicious variations of malted barley instead?