6 best beers for this fall
Each year at this time, brewers small and smaller roll out distinctive stouts and ales.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- As baseball gives way to football and local Oktoberfests start springing up all over the country, autumn becomes yet another good time to break open a beer.
But instead of reaching for the usual six-pack, the next few months will present plenty of opportunity to sample so-called seasonal beers - special recipes that brewers offer for a limited time.
Seasonal brews have a tradition that goes back more than 1,500 years when Monks in northern Europe would save their finest ingredients to make a special beer for Christmas.
What little of this tradition migrated to America was largely wiped out by prohibition, says Stan Hieronymus, author of "Brew Like a Monk" and the editor of Realbeer.com. "In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there was one style of beer in the United States. International light lager."
But in the past few years, beer drinkers' tastes have shifted. In 2005, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, import and specialty beers grew 7.5 percent, while mass-marketed beers fell 1.6 percent. Although there are no hard numbers for seasonal brews, the recent resurgence of microbreweries have contributed to their new-found popularity.
One piece of evidence that these limited beers have staying power: Big brewers have gotten in on the action.
Anheuser-Busch (Charts), the maker of Budweiser and Bud Light, is quietly building up its portfolio of seasonal brews. Its autumn beer: Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale, brewed with Oregon pumpkins, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove. Other specialty brews the king of beers is cooking up: Brew Masters' Private Reserve, an all malt lager, Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale, made with dark-roasted caramel and aged on bourbon oak casks, and Michelob Celebrate Chocolate, aged on cocoa beans.
It's hard to say exactly when these seasonal brews will make their appearances, but it's wise to be on the lookout from now until the end of the year.
Here are a few of Hieronymus' picks that any true beer lover should have on his radar:
Fuller's: Vintage Ale
Each autumn brings a unique recipe from this United Kingdom brewer, so stocking up and allowing flavors to emerge over the years makes for fun comparisons down the line. Despite the difference from year to year, there's an underlying malty, full flavor, Hieronymus points out.
"It has a wonderful yeasty character," he says.
Last year, just 1,600 cases made their way to North America. So when you see it, buy it, because it won't be available for long.
Anchor Brewing: Our Special Ale
It's hard to say exactly what you'll be getting from a bottle of this seasonal brew because the recipe changes annually, and the San Francisco brewer keeps its ingredients top secret.
"Some years is has a lot of spruce in it," says Hieronymus. "Sometimes you get notes of cinnamon."
Which means that you may like one year more than another. True beer enthusiasts treat this ale as though it were vintage wine, tucking a few bottles away in a cool, dark cellar to allow flavors to change and ripen over time.
Sierra Nevada: Celebration
Celebration is an American India Pale Ale, so expect a strong flavor of hops. Hops act as a preservative, and since this beer doesn't really spend ages on a boat going to India, the flavor is intense, even citrusy.
If you're into pairing beer with something other than pizza or nachos, this one goes well with prime rib and lamb.
Affligem Brewery: Affligem Noel
A strong, dark, spicy beer with a hint of fruit and raisins. This beer has an alcohol content of 9 percent, so it's not for quaffing. Sold in a dark bottle with a cork and wire top, "it makes a nice pop presentation," says Hieronymus. "It's like opening a bottle of champagne."
Brooklyn Brewery: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
A deep brown imperial stout with complex flavors. When it's fresh, there is a strong roasty character to the brew. Aged, it takes on the character of sherry. Goes well with a chocolate dessert. Availability of this seasonal brew is limited to eastern states.
Great Divide Brewing Company: Hibernation Ale
Brewed in July and aged until October, this rich malty beer is available for the six weeks from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 each year. This beer is both rich and sweet.
"There's a caramel character, even a little bit of toffee," says Hieronymus. "And it's fun to lay it down and see how it changes over time."