by Tom Lee
When autumn rolls around you have to take the good with the bad. The air acquires a crisp chill, the leaves begin to rust, and you begin to catch unexpected hints of wood smoke as you move about the neighborhood. I find all of those things very pleasant, but they come at a price: awful beer. Well alright, not awful. A lot of people really like Octoberfest beers, but to me they’re more of a cultural duty than a product I enjoy drinking. Sickly sweet, cloyingly malty — ugh. I appreciate all that the Germans have done for us, beer-wise, and I don’t want to give offense, so I try not to complain too bitterly. Besides, I enjoy garishly-hopped ales, so who am I to judge those who enjoy things at the other end of the big beer spectrum? I’m willing to grit my teeth, grab the last few sixpacks of Oberon and wait for the end of the season.
The problem is that the season doesn’t seem to end any more. It used to be that I could look forward to the winter beers. This was the season for bold editions of subtle styles. And, as a pumpkin ale apologist, it was a nice chance to drink spiced beer that wasn’t kind of embarrassing. Citrus and coriander would begin to sneak into mass-market brews, which could live peacefully alongside heartier ales. It was great.
But this year the super-malted stuff seems to have become the de facto winter style; it’s as if Octoberfest lasts all goddamn winter. One might reasonably ask what the point is of having a seasonal style that doesn’t contrast with the style of the preceding season. As far as I can tell the motivation for all of this is to get the alcohol percentage up. Beers with names like “Winter Warmer” give the game away: these brewers are after that pleasing esophageal heat, and who gives a damn if it tastes like molasses before it gets there. Some even go so far as to introduce smoked ingredients into the mix — as if the idea of a cozy wood fire is so irresistable that drinkers wish they could put it in their mouths, like toddlers chewing on a favorite toy.
This trend would be fine if it didn’t crowd out the wits, goldens and and spiced lagers that I prefer around this time of year, but at many craft brewers — who typically offer a single seasonal — it seems to have done just that. Despite keeping my eyes peeled, the only candidate beers I’ve come across are Bell’s Winter White, which was uncharacteristically underwhelming; Southampton’s Double White, which was overwhelming (and not a seasonal, I don’t think); and the aforementioned Sam Winter Lager, which is good but not distinctive. That’s three beers making a lonesome stand against dozens and dozens of syrupy concoctions with “elf” in their names.
But I suppose I’m being a bit silly. It’s not as if a person living in any reasonably big city can’t get their preferred style of beer at whatever time of year they’d like. But I’m the sort of sap who really enjoys/is suckered in by seasonal branding. I really like the idea of winter beers — it’s just that I increasingly can’t stand the actual beer.