When the weather turns chilly and crisp, many beer lovers crave spicy, seasonal ales and lagers. These big beers pair well with the rich dishes that pop up during autumn and early winter. Some are so full-bodied and heavily infused with spices, herbs, fruits, chocolate, and other ingredients, they seem like a meal all on their own.
This year, we searched for a handful of exotic and unusual spiced beers that stand out among what is now fairly common fare within the fall beer scene. We found some splendid bottles of ale at local retailers. Some are domestic, and others are imported. Some are light and delicate in flavor. Others are very dark, heavy, and loaded with spiciness.
In this year's pack, one of the lightest ales in body, color, and strength is an unusual ale from the Dr. Fritz Briem Historic Signature Series in Germany called 13th Century Grut Bier (4.6 percent a.b.v.), a hazy-golden ale made with an old-fashioned herb/spice mixture in lieu of hops. Grut (often called "gruit") dates back hundreds of years. Brewers balanced the sweetness of the barley and wheat malts with a variety of bitter and flowery botanicals. The list of ingredients is impressive: bay leaves, ginger, caraway, anise, rosemary, and gentian along with wheat and barley malt and "pollinated wild hops." There's a hint of pine in the aroma and a layer of sweet maltiness in the flavor, but the ginger stands out all the way from aroma to finish. Fans of Dogfish Brewing's ginger-accented Pangaea ale would like this unfiltered, unpasteurized, bottle-conditioned rarity.
Rogue Brewing in Portland, Ore., released a floral, malty, barrel-aged ale this fall called John John Juniper (5 percent a.b.v.), created by Rogue brewmaster John Maier and Rogue Spirits master distiller John Couchot. It's a small-batch, limited-edition hazy-amber ale made with a variety of pale and crystal malts, British and Northwestern U.S. hops, and fresh juniper berries. Aged in spruce gin barrels, there's a heavy wood flavor in the initial sip, followed by a citrusy, rose/lavender, honey-ish finish. It's lighter in body and dryer than expected. Gin fans might not enjoy this, but fans of barrel-aged pale ales surely will.
The small Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales brewery in Michigan — a company that specializes in open fermentation, barrel aging, and bottle conditioning — never actually brewed a pumpkin beer until this year. Their oak barrel-aged La Parcela (5.9 percent a.b.v.) is a delicious and inventive debut, though, infused with fresh pumpkin, cacao, and other spices. Light amber/copper with a slight haze, it's nicely conditioned, well-balanced, and considerably more tart and sour than most pumpkin ales. With a citrusy/oaky finish, it has the spicy zing and dryness of a Belgian white beer.
If Georgia micro Terrapin Brewing Co.'s Pumpkinfest covers the Bavarian Oktoberfest and pumpkin beer side of things, their new collaboration, the deep-amber colored Terrapin Reunion Beer 2011 (7.6 percent a.b.v.), aims for the spicy side of the season. Every year, Terrapin partners with another micro in making the Reunion Ale Series. This year's is a collaboration with Schmaltz Brewing to benefit cancer research. Two versions of this beer were brewed, one at each brewery. It has dark malts and a low dose of hops with additional cocoa nibs, fresh vanilla, and chili peppers — it's practically the molé of dark ales. Full-bodied and satiny, the vanilla and chocolate are up front in the aroma and initial flavor. The cinnamon-like heat and ping of the chilis accelerate in the finish. It's a chewy and tantalizing ale, perfect for a peppery seafood dish or an oyster roast in cold weather.
One of the most festive spice beers of this bunch is the rare and Peculiar Yule (a.k.a. Underlig Jul, 6.5 percent a.b.v.), from Norway's Nøgne Ø Det Kompromissløse Bryggeri. It's a black-colored, full-bodied winter warmer made with crystal and chocolate malt with plenty of ginger, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. The spices were inspired by the traditional Nordic beverage called Glögg, a mulled wine similar to Glühwein made with cinnamon, cloves, and sugar. It's heavy, like drinking a dense, nutty, chewy fruit cake soaked in ginger ale, molasses, and Worcestershire sauce — peculiar, indeed.