Seasonal Beer Drinking and a Sentimentality for Autumn

Autumn days are the best of the year and this time around they’ve got me thinking. The trees have turned and the air has a freshness which will last until it takes on aromas of smoke as people light fires to deal with the fallen leaves and debris carpeting their lawns and driveways. Apples have started to fall too, and there’s an aroma which almost makes me want for a cider or two. Almost, but not quite, because it’s on these autumnal days that I’ll crave oaked, smoked and the darkest of beers.

There’s something almost cyclical to beer drinking in which some breweries release beers according to the season. Some will argue that there’s no need, surely if something can be available year-round then why wait until, say, the colder months to drink stout? To that I suggest the simple joy of it being something to look forward to. Sure, I’ll drink a cold Pilsner on a winters day but the appeal is nowhere near as strong as on a hot summer’s afternoon, when the crisp cold refreshment cuts through the heat that bounces throughout the day, stifling and close. Likewise, the appeal of an Imperial stout and its warming veil that blankets the cold is not so strong as it is on the wintrier days of the year.

It’s easy to overlook the joys of seasonal produce, we’ve been neglecting it when we buy food, we’ve got to the point where, as a society, we’re out of tune; we buy strawberries at Christmas, even if they’re never quite as sweet and delicious as when they are eaten at the peak of their sunny season or dropped into a jug of Pimm’s; the most quintessential of English summer drinks. I’ll say the same for British asparagus too, it’s something I’ve come to look forward to, whilst asparagus tastes good to me out of season, it tastes that much better in and has become synonymous with spring. It’s that similar kind of association that can be applied to beer drinking. Whilst the time of year won’t necessarily affect the way the beer tastes I’d argue that it’s the experience of drinking it that can be heightened and by association perhaps make the flavours seem more enhanced. It’s that experience that plays a vital part in the enjoyment of a beer and if the beer in that moment becomes a memorable one or at least plays a part in the memory of that moment, making it something you’ll want to repeat. Think of lagers on the beach in the height of summer surrounded by mates and the sound of waves lapping the coastline; an experience that macro lager producers tend to fall back on when marketing their beers.

Today, breathing in, I’m greeted by a cool freshness reminiscent of the cooling feeling when eating a strong mint, yet there’s just enough heat in the sun that any lingering dew has burnt off allowing me to sit on the timber frame of a bench, free from picking up any uncomfortable damp patch. It’s that lingering warmth that warrants ‘sunny’ beer drinking and there’s a plethora of Green Hopped beers on the market, a sub style that is driven by seasonality as the fresh hops that have been picked during the harvest are used (preferably within 24 hours of picking) instead of being dried. Therefore, the characteristics of the hops are different, with an increased moisture level the flavours and aromas change, meaning these beers are different beasts to those that are brewed with the standard dried hops. As such, those oaked, smoked, and darkest of beers can wait whilst I sip a beer that’s of a similar golden hue to that of the seasonal glow filtering through the colourful canopies nearby. Once green the foliage is now a glorious spectrum of amber, gold and maroon, giving one final show before crisping and crumbling to mulch. The only freshness is in the air and the fresh green hops in my beer. I’m beneath a holiday-blue sky holding my first pint of Green Hopped IPA, the 6.5% seasonal release by Sussex based Dark Star, at the brewery’s annual Hopfest event. Each year crowds gather here to celebrate the launch of that year’s autumn release of the special Green Hopped IPA. A weekend of tank-fresh, cask and kegged beer, local food, live music and street art is put on and it seems fitting to turn the release into an occasion like this, an excuse to celebrate the hops, the beer, the time of year; one last flourish before winter takes hold and festivities of a different nature appear on the calendar. If I’m honest I think I look forward to the release of the fresh hopped beers just as much as I look forward to Christmas.

The evenings draw in bringing prolonged darkness ever closer as the year inches onward and with these evenings, a chill, no matter how warm the day may have been, the twilight hours will see the temperature drop. Jumpers and blankets find a purpose again and as they are pulled from the back of cupboards so too are the darker beers. The beers I’ve stashed away for these moments; dry and imperial stouts, the smoked beers, the barrel aged beers, barley wines and the traditional, rich, malt driven brews that some may well describe as boring brown bitters, but which I find to be comforting as their nutty and dried fruit characteristics perfectly mirror and complement the time of year. Beers such as Copper Hop by Longman Brewery of East Sussex. The amber ale is from the Small Batch range, available in bottles and pours the perfect shade for the time of year. The dark amber hues mirror the foliage around me and as late summer transitions in to autumn this beer drinks well; a full-bodied profile of citrus fruits layered over chewy toffee and biscuity malts as a crisp bitter finish mirrors the crispness of the leaves that rustle and gather in the afternoon breeze, collecting in piles in garden corners.

As the night draws in, the stouts and porters come out; Viking D.N.A is a good example of a smoked porter by Brew York, Smog Rocket by Beavertown is a perennial favourite at this time of year too and Dark Star and Harvey’s both brew Imperial Stouts that I’d recommend everyone who is a fan of the style to have stashed away if they can (keep your eyes peeled for special barrel-aged versions of Dark Star’s Impy Stout). Another favourite of mine is Good King Henry, a beer brewed by Old Chimneys Brewery of Diss, bottle conditioned and named after a herb which was once seen in many a cottage garden. It’s rarely grown now and isn’t held in much regard, unlike the beer which, after receiving many an award, has become a well-regarded example of a traditional Imperial Stout. The Special Reserve version even more so. This is a beer which delivers a knockout hit of coffee and chocolate, booze-soaked dark fruits and rich fruitcake, a mild caramel sweetness and a well-rounded bitterness to balance. You wouldn’t believe that this is 9.3% brew; its smoothness is deceptive, much like many a conker attached to a shoelace and delivering its own knockout hit. 

These are the kind of beers that will act like my favourite knitwear during the chillier months; layered up, comfortable and warming. They’re a slow affair, it’s a slow time of year, and the ABV’s on some of these require time to be taken, complexities to be revealed and explored and a warming comfort to be secured. Autumn really is a wonderful time to beer.

Rachael blogs about beer over at Look At Brew