What makes for a good fall beer? Extra body? Darker malt? Pumpkin spice? Every brewer and brewery in Charlottesville has their own ideas about this. So I grabbed a friend and visited five local breweries to see what their takes on fall beers are—and whether they shied away from the polarizing pumpkin beer.
At Reason Brewery up Route 29, I ordered a pumpkin beer. “We don’t have one,” responded Mark Fulton, one of Reason’s founders.
Good. I think pumpkin beer is usually terrible. And what Reason is offering for fall is a black lager, with a heft perfect for cooler weather. It’s on tap at the brewery and they intend to begin distributing it by the end of October. Hopped like a pale ale, the malt is dark but the ABV is still only around 5 percent.
“I personally am a dark beer fan,” Fulton said. “I think a lot of people sort of relate a darker beer with the cooler weather.”
Our next stop was Champion to taste its annual pumpkin beer called Kicking and Screaming—so named because the brewers had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making a pumpkin beer. But this year, they apparently kicked their way out of it, because the pumpkin beer has now been deep-sixed.
Sean Chandler, our bartender, presented us with three samples of proposed fall beers from Champion. Biere de Garde, Fruit Casket (a double IPA) and Pacecar Porter.
The Biere de Garde was an instant winner: dark, spicy, richly blanketing the entire palate.
“My war is on pumpkin spice, not on spice or pumpkins,” says Jeff Diehm, whom I once again dragooned (he also helped determine the best grocery store bar in “Store credit: What’s the best grocery store bar in town?, August 2-8, 2017) into tasting beer with me. “I’d call it a very good after-dinner beer. It’s pretty spicy, and I think I would slip into something darker to close my evening.”
Champion’s Fruit Casket was a surprise. A double IPA brewed with agave that comes across neither as an IPA nor as gimmicky as it sounds. Big, full, less hoppy than you’d expect. This is what you want to sit around a bonfire with.
The Pacecar Porter is simultaneously dark and bright tasting. An unusual sharpness to the hops on top of a classic moderate porter.
Moving along to Three Notch’d Brewing’s new location at the IX Art Park, the first thing we noticed was that this place is pretty different from Three Notch’d’s first tasting location on Grady Avenue. The new place has a full-service kitchen, and executive chef Patrick Carroll focuses on local, sustainable ingredients and uses Three Notch’d’s craft beers and sodas in the food whenever possible.
The brewery’s Apple Crumb Amber Ale will be released soon, but it wasn’t available yet for us to taste. One of our bartenders made a face at the mention of pumpkin beer and didn’t even want to discuss it. What was available in an autumn mode was a Blue Toad Harvest Cider. It screamed cinnamon, but in a good way. You could put it on the table for Thanksgiving dinner and pair it with turkey and stuffing. We drank it alongside a shared platter of poutine, which featured fork-tender beef and fried cheese curds with onions and gravy covering a plate of fries. The perfect food to turn to halfway through a five-stop brewery crawl.
At Brasserie Saison, the Belgian restaurant and brewery on the Downtown Mall, a curious map of Europe was suggested by Munich-themed Oktoberfest banners and seasonal German beers offered alongside the classic Belgian offerings of steamed mussels and saison.
Manager Wil Smith served us tastes of the Oktoberfest beer and wouldn’t be baited into talking trash about pumpkin beers (which, fortunately, they aren’t making).
Traditional Oktoberfest beers in Munich are kind of crappy. In fact, that’s the whole point of them. Oktoberfest is a sloppy, drunken, week-long booze fest where a celebration of the palate isn’t exactly the point. American Oktoberfest beers, including Brasserie Saison’s, are often dark, heavy lagers that taste far better than the real thing.
Taking the free trolley up West Main Street, we visited Hardywood’s new-ish outpost near the Corner.
Lora Gess, our bartender, poured us tastes of Hardywood’s Farmhouse Pumpkin Ale. Diehm and I gleefully prepared to hate it as much as we each hate all things pumpkin spice.
“A lot of people have really misconstrued pumpkin-flavored everything because of what it is,” explains Gess in defense of her employer’s pumpkin ale. “It’s a pumpkin-spice-latte-kind-of-society these days. But [this beer is] fresh, it’s mild. You get a pumpkin flavor but not a fake pumpkin flavor.”
And she was right. Somehow, Hardywood made a pumpkin beer that wasn’t awful. In fact, it was great.
It starts life as a traditional farmhouse saison to which Hardywood adds fresh pumpkin—not canned, not frozen—fresh. Instead of an insipid blend of pie-inspired spices, the notes of spice come from the flavor profile of the malts and esters produced by the yeast. Hardywood has brewed a masterful pumpkin beer that took us by surprise and almost made us stop talking trash about pumpkin beer.
As the sun went down, we wound up back downtown at South Street Brewery. Finally, we found the holy grail we’d been looking for all day: Twisted Gourd, described by our bartender as a pumpkin chai beer.
“This is a pumpkin spice beer,” Diehm observes with his first sip. “I think if someone was looking for a pumpkin beer, this is where to go get it. It’s South Street, so it’s always a good solid beer. And it’s got pumpkin, so I hate it. But if this is what you are looking for, it’s a solid pumpkin beer. It’s the most honest pumpkin beer I’ve had.”
“This is cloying,” I respond as I taste it. “It’s terrible. But it’s so true to what it is.”
If you like pumpkin spice lattes, you’re gonna love this beer. But if you don’t, South Street has you covered with several other fine autumn beers, including Soft-Serv (tastes like chocolate soft-serve ice cream) and a barrel-aged version of their classic Satan’s Pony.