Fall always offers a chance to kickstart that homebrewing motor. We can take advantage of the cooler fermentation temperatures and move from heat-slaying brews to something more rich and substantial to pair with invigorating weather and culinary traditions of autumn. Of course, Thanksgiving is the culmination, a grand finale to the harvest and an ushering in of winter. Crackling fires, toasty kitchens and the earthy aromas of the outdoors beg for a brew to match the ambience.
Märzen, the quintessential fall beer, is a perfect partner for nearly any aspect of the season, with all of the qualities necessary for the design of other brews that are suited for the autumn. This column will take that model to design Thanksgiving beers that deliver the sweetish, spicy character of kilned malts, a sturdy dose of herbal, earthy hops, full malty goodness, and palate and gravity that is neither filling nor narcotic. I’ve selected three of my favorites that pair well with all seasonal treats, from entrée to dessert. They are a top-fermented a malty German bier, drier amber saison and sweetish pumpkin/sweet potato ale, all of which will bless the marriage of food and drink.
Herbstbier (autumn beer)
Herbstbier is a fusion of märzen and altbier, brewed with top-fermenting German yeast, a versatile catalyst that has a fundamental, stellar kinship with gently-kilned Vienna and Munich malts. The hybrid yeast strains thrive in the cool conditions, and where often fermentation in summer without temperature control can be prohibitive, those restrictions disappear in fall.
The recipe template features clean and toasty Vienna and Munich malts, splendid grains for fall seasonals. A 50/50 combination of Vienna and Munich is my choice, but the inclusion of Pilsner or North American 2-row malt for lighter color and more delicate beer, or 100 percent Vienna and specialty malt is also a good option. Any combination of these malts is worth investigating. I eschew specialty malts since I get enough color from my Vienna/Munich blend, and use a slightly elevated mash temperature of about 152-153°F for mouthfeel. Extract and partial-mash brewers can use combinations of light, Munich and amber malt extracts. Light to medium crystal or caramel malts will bring color and body if you want something a bit chewier. Wort in the 1.060 neighborhood is a good starting point, balanced with 30-35 IBU. Use Czech or German noble hops or your favorite American derivatives such as Mt. Hood, Liberty or Crystal. Northern Brewer and Perle will add earthy flavor and aromatics. Herbstbier will benefit from a month or so of cold-conditioning, but it is not entirely necessary. Give yourself at least 6 weeks from brew day to serving to optimize the flavors, clarity and overall condition.
This rust-colored farmhouse beer can be made with essentially the same grain, extract or partial-mash strategy as the Herbstbier. Use Pilsner, North American 2-row, Vienna and Munich in your favored combination to get the desired depth of reddish color, and an optional touch of Caramunich® or crystal malt. Hop schedule medleys of East Kent Golding, Styrian Goldings, Strisselspalt, Spalt and Saaz will impart an authentic Belgian/French farmhouse character of flavor and aroma. The yeast selection alone will make this a spicy beer, as both Belgian and French saison have a significant imprint in their own right. They send off notes of cinnamon, clove, peppercorn and fruit, depending on the strain, imparting excellent complexity and nuance from one end to the other. They can be highly-attenuative, so read the strain specs and keep this in mind with respect to mashing or addition of character malts, though my preference for this style is on the dry side. Some saison yeasts prefer elevated temperatures, so this may be one to make in summer or early fall to take advantage of the heat and allow for a bit of conditioning prior to the season. If you want a mellower Belgian-style beer to accompany the season, use one of the abbey yeasts, which will tolerate cooler temperatures and offer a less assertive, though no less complex, yeast footprint. Should you opt for a spice addition, I’ve found that peppercorns, ginger, and especially coriander, nutmeg and cinnamon compliment saison and abbey yeasts, as does a small measure of orange zest. Personally, I stay away from sugar additions, but are certainly not out of the question. Up to a pound of light candi or turbinado would be nice options.
Pumpkin/Sweet Potato/Winter Squash ale
Pumpkin ales have rightfully become the go-to fall seasonal. They add the flavor and color of the season, are cheap and plentiful, can stand up to malty flavors, and love sugar and spice additions. Whole or canned pumpkin can be used, but whole, raw pumpkin needs to be cleaned and cooked or baked. Prepared (cleaned and cooked/baked) or canned pumpkin can be simply added to the kettle, but this will only extract the flavor and color. The better option is to the mash it with your grains. Not only will this help render the starchy pumpkin flesh fermentable, but will also eliminate some vegetal flavors. Any pumpkin will work, but pie or cooking pumpkins are best. They are fleshier, generally smaller and have better flavor and higher potential sugar and fermentation content. There are dozens of varieties, heirloom or new, and will usually be designated as such at the market or grocer. Look for Small Sugar, Amish Pie, Winter Luxury and New England Pie among others. As with most garden cultivars, new types are developed annually, so do a little research or ask the vendor. You’ll need about 7 pounds of pumpkin (about 4 pounds of useable flesh) for a 5-gallon batch of beer. Often, the spices in pumpkin ales are so potent that they cover up any hint the gourd itself. I wholeheartedly suggest that you go somewhat easy on the spices and let the pumpkin shine through.
Sweet potatoes are also an excellent addition to fall beers. They are plentiful in the fall, need no cleaning, are high in potential sugar, caramelize very well and offer up seasonal flavor and color similar to pumpkins. Yet another alternative are winter squash not called pumpkin. Any of the sweeter edible types can be substituted for pumpkin or sweet potato including curshaw, butternut, buttercup (my favorite) or even spaghetti.
When using gourds (pumpkin, winter squash) or sweet potatoes, remember that cooked is OK, but baked is better. To cook gourds, cut them in half, scoop out the seeds and guts, cut into chunks, separate flesh from rind and boil for twenty minutes as you would regular potatoes. Sweet potatoes can be peeled, chunked and boiled similarly. Once cooked you can smash them and boil with your wort or mash with your grains. Remember, the latter is far superior. This cooking method essentially mimics canned pumpkin or sweet potato, which are already cooked.
To bake gourds, cut in half, clean, and bake open side down at 350°F for 60 minutes. Scoop out the flesh when finished. Sweet potatoes should be pierced prior to baking in their skins (they will ooze beautiful caramelized sweet potato goodness while baking). Smash the flesh and use as above. Baking will gelantize the starch, but also caramelize it and create some luscious Malliard reaction products. Canned pumpkin can be baked in a pan until, coincidentally enough, it resembles a pumpkin pie. One can is equal to about a pound of pumpkin. In all cases (canned, cooked or baked) use about 4 pounds of prepared or canned pumpkin or whole sweet potatoes per 5-gallon batch as a starting point. Once again, these baked products can be added to either kettle or mash, but will deliver more flavor than the cooked, and offer fermentables if mashed.
A pound of brown or tubinado sugar or a cup of light molasses added to the kettle can enhance these beers nicely. Light to medium caramel malts and a good measure of Munich malt or extract also pairs well. If you are mashing your prepared veggies, vorlauf to clarity and use some rice hulls to prevent stuck sparges. As for spices, try any of the pie spices individually (ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg) or in personalized ratios or just add a couple of teaspoons of pie spice mixture. I prefer earthy and fruity hops like Perle, Northern Brewer, Bramling Cross, East Kent Golding, Fuggles, Mt. Hood, Crystal, Cluster and Willamette. English ale yeast will give the best estery and earthy fermentation, but Scottish or American yeasts also will do the job.
(extract/specialty grain) OG 1.060, 35 IBU
1# Crystal 40 or Caramunich® II
4# Light DME and 3# Munich or Amber LME
Steep grains at 155F for 20 minutes, remove grains, add malt extract and top up to 6 gallons.
Bring to a boil and add 1.5 oz East Kent Goldings hops
Boil for 40 minutes and add 1 oz Styrian Goldings hops. Then boil for 20 minutes, add 1 oz Saaz hops, turn off the burner, and chill.
Ferment with Wyeast 3711 or White Labs WLP565.
Optional spices: add up to ½ oz freshly ground white peppercorn, cinnamon, nutmeg or coriander or 1 oz fresh chopped ginger or orange zest.
(partial mash) OG 1.060
Mash 4# Munich malt and 1# Aromatic malt for 1 hour at 152°F. Sparge to collect wort and add 4# Light DME.
Top up kettle to 6 gallons and bring to a boil.
Bittering hops: 1 oz Perle (7-8 Alpha Acid Units),
60 minutes, Flavor hops: 1 oz German Tetnang,
Hallertauer or American Mt. Hood, 30 minutes
Aroma hops: 1 oz German Tetnang, Hallertauer
or American Mt. Hood, 5 minutes
Ferment with Wyeast 1007 or White Labs WLP029 yeast. For a maltier version, ferment with Wyeast 1338 or White Labs WLP011.
Notes: For all-grain, mash 7# Pilsner malt, 4# Munich malt and 1# Caramunich II for one hour at 152°F
Sweet Potato Ale
(all-grain, OG 1.060)
Pierce, bake and smash 4 lbs of new sweet potatoes and incorporate into a mash of 1# 40°L crystal malt, 2# Munich malt and 6# Pilsner malt at 152°F for one hour with 1# of rice hulls.
Collect wort, and stir in 1# turbinado sugar
Hop schedule: 1 oz (or 9 Alpha Acid Units) Brewers Gold hops, 60 minutes. 1 oz Fuggles hops, 15 minutes.1 oz East Kent Goldings hops, 5 minutes
Ferment with Wyeast 1028, 1728 or 1056, White Labs WLP013, WLP028 or WLP001, or Safeale S-04 or US-05 dried yeast.