We are creeping into the darker, colder, less fun months of fall. Know what might warm your cold heart? One, or many, of the best fall beers available. There’s no bad time to drink beer, but fall might be one of the best times. As the temperature dips, you’re finally able to drink some of the heavier, darker (more flavorful) beers that would just weigh you down in the dog days of summer. But it’s still not so cold that those trendy hazy IPAs are off the table.
Of course, with more choice comes the paradox. When you can drink basically any of the beer on the planet, how do you actually figure out which to uncap? Making that simple decision has only gotten harder as the wave of craft beer enthusiasm brings confounding terminology and tasting notes to a beverage people literally crush against their foreheads. What’s the difference between an imperial stout and a single stout? A stout and a porter? Who decides whether this is an Amber Ale or a Brown Ale? Do I want something that tastes “dank?”
Your head spinning, you’ve probably defaulted to whichever beer had the coolest label. And honestly, that might have worked. But if you’re looking to do things a little bit more intentionally, we’re here to help. We talked to 14 bartenders, restaurateurs, owners, and general managers from across the country (and Canada!) about the best fall beers that they and their regulars come back to when the weather cools. They range from six packs you can find in your local grocery store to beautiful bottles you’ll have to uncork.
The Best Brown and Amber Ales
Every expert we spoke to said they gravitate towards brown and amber ales during the cooler months. For good reason! Darker ales are made with roasted malts, which gives them a kind of toasty flavor. The darker the malt, the darker the beer.
Bell’s Best Brown Ale was the first beer mentioned by several of our experts. “I associate it with cooler weather, but it’s also doesn’t act too heavy,” says Matty O’Reilly, a restaurateur in the Twin Cities who owns Republic MPLS. “It has a great malt backbone, caramel and chocolate in the profile, but it’s 5.8% ABV and smooth AF. It’s seasonally appropriate in it’s depth, but you can crush a bunch of them, too.”
For a slightly less chocolate-y take on the Brown Ale, Chris Maestro, owner of BierWax in Brooklyn, suggests the Maduro from Cigar City. “CigarCity’s take on the English style is superb … Silky, roasty, malty goodness that goes down way too easy.”
“This is a coffee brown ale we look forward to every fall,” says Polly Watts, owner of The Avenue Pub in New Orleans. “It’s got a good dose of coffee in it. So you get all the caramel goodness of a brown ale, but you get the bitterness of the coffee. It’s one of my favorite beers from them and it only comes out in the fall.”
If you’re looking for a brown ale that packs a slightly lighter punch, Anne Beccera, beverage director at Treadwell Park and certified cicerone, refers to this one as an easy-drinker she never gets tired of. “At 4.2 % ABV, all those all those rich, nutty, cocoa-tinged flavors have a warming effect and taste like a trip upstate to watch changing leaves,” she says.
A quad ale is a Belgian style that is usually dark with a strong flavor. This one is a favorite of Dmitri Chekaldin of Dacha in DC. “Anything quad—whether a lutz by fearless Alysa Liu or a beautiful goblet of strong ale brewed in Bruges—is worth anyone’s fleeting attention. Straffe Hendrik brews their quad at 11 ABV% and what a glorious 11% it is! With every sip you’d feel like Mrs. Liu on Olympic ice!”
“Alaskan Amber is one of those beers that’s accessible enough to pair with food and nicely balanced to cozy up and have a few by the fire,” says O’Reilly. “This one is a German Alt-Bier, so it takes on a slow fermentation process for a balanced and smooth taste. It’s 5.3% ABV, but has great body and malt character.”
Dubbel is a general name for the darker beers that came out of the breweries of Belgian Trappist monks. They tend to be the same color profile as more conventional brown ales, but taste a bit more fruity, like red wines. Both Lori Beck, owner of Holy Grale in Louisville, and Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, California, say this Westmalle dubbel is the apex of the style. “It is the perfect fall sipper,” says Brynildson. “Dark and rich with delicious caramel notes and fruity yeast accents, effervescent, heady and immensely quaffable.” “This beer is a delight to drink particularly in the fall with its warming, gently roasted flavors,” says Beck. “Pro tip: use this beer to make Flemish stew, and of course enjoy one or two while cooking.”
Altbier literally means “old beer” in German. Beck says the name doesn’t refer to the age of the beer, but rather the type of yeast. Most German beers are lagers, which use a bottom-fermenting yeast that became more common in the late 19th century. Altbiers, like all ales, use a top fermenting yeast, which tend to produce more wild (fun!) flavors. “This top fermented ale is cold conditioned, or lagered, giving you the best of both worlds,” says Beck. “[The result is] a highly crushable ale with just the right amount of warmth and toastiness you want going into the colder season.”
A tripel is lighter style of Belgian ale with a golden, almost blonde color. They still tend of have a complex, potent flavor. O’Reilly says the Tripel Karmeliet Belgian Ale is a well-rounded beer with a hint of banana and clove. “It’s a perfect fall artisan bread in a glass. It’s 8.4% ABV, so if you’re having one beer this could and should be the one. But then have like two more because life is pretty short.”
Gary Sink, owner of Beveridge Place Pub in Seattle, loves smokey flavors in beer, especially as it gets cooler. A ton of styles achieve this flavor profile, but a Scotch Ale is one of the most unique—sometimes referred to as “overwhelmingly malty.” According to Sink, this Silver City beer earns its Scotch moniker, without tasting like a campfire.
The Best Porters and Stouts
Porters and stouts are both types of ales, but they usually feature malts that are roasted even more than those used to make amber and brown ales. They tend to be the heaviest beers, but also feature nutty and chocolate notes that could offer comfort against a brisk fall chill. Since the historical difference between the two is hotly debated, there is no universal standard to distinguish one from the other. Either way you go, you’re going to get something dark and delicious.
The Bell’s Cherry Stout is a favorite of Watt’s customers. “It’s a single stout, so it’s under 9% ABV. People can drink a whole pint of it. It’s not going to knock you off your barstool.”
This beer is literally named “Fall,” but that’s not the only reason Becerra suggests it. “The big, chocolatey flavors of the malt with that kick of roasty coffee is perfect for warming up after a chilly Maine Fall hike,” says Becerra. “But at 5.6%, it still manages to be super refreshing, like a fabulous iced coffee.”
“Fall marks the beginning of Porter season for me,” says Michael Roper, founder and owner of Hopleaf Bar in Chicago. “And there’s no better Porter in America than Anchor Porter,” which comes from San Francisco.
Roper is also a fan of this Porter from Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery. “Big flavor and body without a lot of alcohol or overwhelming bitterness,” he says. “Cold winds bring a need for sustenance and a few pints of porter is like thick slices of black bread in a glass.”
The word “imperial,” when applied to beer, is usually an indication that this is a strong, high-ABV beer. “This is an imperial stout that’s aged in Willet Rye Barrels. It’s rich, it’s deep, it’s very tasty,” says Watt. “Personally for me, beers like this are almost like a dessert. It’s like eating a brownie … When it comes to something like this, I want a 10-ounce pour.”
This is a favorite imperial stout of Molly Gunn, co-owner of the Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta, Georgia. “Bonus! This beer ages incredibly well so if you buy too much, don’t be afraid to hang onto it and crack it open in a year. The beautiful barrel character will be even stronger.”
Most people reserve porters and stouts for the colder months, but Beck says this one stays on tap all-year round at Holy Grale. “We love its roasted maltiness, low ABV, creamy mouthfeel and dry finish. With most stouts these days having a million crazy ingredients in it, we deeply appreciate the simplicity and beauty of this classic stout.”
Bourbon barrel aged stouts are beers brewed in, well, emptied bourbon-barrels. As such they take on some of the characteristics of the American whiskey. According to Sink you get “chocolate and coffee flavors from the beer, vanilla and molasses from the barrels.” The beer is an intense 12.7% ABV, but Sink encourages you to let it ferment a bit longer before cracking it open. “This beer drinks well now, but you can age it a year or more.”
The Best Fall Lagers
Lagers often get a bad rep, mostly because it’s an enormously expansive category of beer. Yes, Coors Light is a lager, but so are a ton of well-balanced, flavorful beers that do not taste like toilet water. Many of our experts say they gravitate towards darker styles of this brew, particularly the kinds with extremely long German names.
“Anytime you see a beer name with the suffix ‘-ator,’ it’s a doppelbock,” says Elise Capers, general manager of Axelrad Beer Garden in Houston, Texas. “This one has a mild molasses flavor, with toasty and roasty carmelized darker fruits.”
To explain why he loves this doppelbock, Chekaldin told us an extremely evocative story of its origin. According to him, a monk name St. Korbinian won a permit to brew this beer by defeating a bear on his way to the Vatican. “Now we can all enjoy one of the best strong, dark lagers in the world,” he says. We have no way to verify this story, but Chekaldin’s enthusiasm makes us at least confident this beer tastes incredible. (Capers is also a fan.)
Sinks favorite dopplebock is this one from Ayinger, a Bavarian brewery that’s been around for more than 140 years. “Unlike that of many sweeter ales,” he says, “the lagering process creates a cleaner, drier finish, so you’re quickly ready for the next sip (or gulp).”
A weizen doppelbock is a doppelbock made with wheat. According to Capers, it’s got a similar molasses flavor as the doppelbock. “But when you put the wheat in it brings a whole other level of nuance. It’s got almost a banana pudding flavor and lot of clove. I used to suggest this beer to anyone who was a little scared to drink beer when I was a server.”
Weihenstephaner’s weizenbock is less banana more vanilla, according to Becerra. “This sparkly German wheat beer is full-bodied, spicy, and aromatic, with just the right amount of sweetness. It’s also one of my favorite beers to pair with apple pies and apple cider donuts.”
October means Octoberfest, even in a pandemic, and one of the classic-Octoberfest styles of beer is a Marzen. Marzens are Bavarian-style lagers that generally have a full-body and a rich, slightly sweet and herbal flavor. Roper’s favorite is this one from Great Lakes Brewing Co in Cleveland. “It vanishes from the shelves quickly so don’t dither. Throw some brats on the grill and pour a few of these while listening to some polka music and you’ll be in the mood for fall.”
“If a great craft selection is unavailable, an easy-drinking Negra Modelo with all those toffee, slightly fruity flavors is an easy choice,” says Becerra. Yes, you’re reading that right, a certified cicerone has given you the blessing to get beer at your local bodega.
The Best Sour Beers and Lambics
In our current climate of obsession with anything pickled, it’s no surprise that sour beers (also called Lambics, depending on where the ingredients are sourced) have become more widely available and widely liked. They’re usually formulated with a more complicated mixture of yeasts that produce tons of wild, tart flavors that would be completely unwelcome in a smooth lager. It might seem like an odd choice for the cold weather (isn’t anything sour and sweet perfect for summer?), but a lot of experts turn to these kind of beers as they prepare to hibernate.
Alicia Guevara, who owns Mekelberg’s in Brooklyn, loves this lambic, which tastes a lot like white wine. “It’s a classic Belgian. You have a steak, you have dessert, then you come to our bar two hours later and have a glass of this. It helps after a heavy meal. Put this on your Thanksgiving table.”
Becerra is another pro-lambic expert. “You can’t go wrong with a proper, funky Belgian gueuze for Fall, and 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze is an outstanding choice. All those flavors like Meyer lemon, leather, oak and green apple skin mingling together alongside a rich earthiness and a tangy, bone dry finish—you can’t beat it.”
Both Chekaldin and Roper recommend this beer, which Chedalkin says is one of the best examples of the Flemish red ale style. “Fruit flavors are flawlessly mixed into lovely sweet sourness … It is very à propos if you find yourself cozying up next to a firepit.”
Nick Kennedy, who refers to himself as the “Senior Executive Barback” at Civil Liberties Bar in Toronto, found a new appreciation for this Lambic on his mother’s 60th birthday. “My mom, who never drinks beer, tried a pour of this and her eyes lit up. ‘This is the best cocktail I’ve ever had,’ she said. ‘It’s not a cocktail,’ I said. ‘It’s not? What kind of wine is it?’ she said. ‘Mom, it’s beer!’ ‘Beer? I haven’t had beer in 40 years.’ I love that my mom got to skip 40 years of mediocre craft beer culture. I’m looking forward to crushing lambics with her for the rest of the season.”
Sink knows that sours can be divisive, which is why he recommends this sour ale. “Some folks aren’t fond of the higher acidity sour beers,” he says. “This one has tons of fruit flavor up front that helps mellow the back-end into a ‘tart’ flavor, instead of full on sour.”
The Best Fall IPA
Most of the experts we talked to were really tired of the craft IPA craze that’s been raging for over a decade. And, they noted, the assault of hazy fruit hop flavors provided by conventional IPAs doesn’t really make sense for the colder months. That said, there were a couple of IPAs, that some of our experts were looking forward to drinking this season.
Sink says this IPA, from a Seattle brewery famous for its IPAs, is the one he turns to when he wants to be reminded of summer in the colder months. That’s thanks to its citrus flavor and aroma, but also, he admits, due to the bright orange can.
“It is hop harvest time and ‘wet’ hop harvest ales are in season,” says Roper. “It is hard to beat Sierra Nevada’s Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale. The fresh hops explode on your tongue.” This is a good thing! O’Reilly is also a fan, though he notes its important to drink your 6-pack quickly. “The only downside is if you find one of these in the back of your fridge a month from now, just throw it away, he says. “treat wet hop IPAs, and almost all beers, like milk.”
Three Floyds Broo Doo ale is another wet-hopped IPA. Beck says this year’s edition tastes “oh-so-very fresh.” “Smell and taste the grassy, piney, stone fruit goodness!”
“Sierra Nevada Celebration sounds like a Christmas beer, but it’s actually brewed in celebration of the hop harvest and is a delicious hoppy selection for colder weather,” says Gunn.
If you do want a hazy IPA (nothing wrong with that!), Sink likes this one from Reuben’s Brews. “Generally speaking, I don’t think most “hazy” IPAs are really IPAs, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying them!” he says. “The tropical flavors from the hops float around in a silky sea thanks to the wheat and oats.”
The Best Saisons
Saison’s are a general category of farmhouse ale, generally brewed at high carbonation levels with an emphasis on fruity and spicy flavors. They’re perfect for someone who likes the funkiness of a sour beer, but wants something a little bit more mellow. “I think if more people were familiar with Saisons,” says Becerra, “it would easily be one of the most popular beer styles.”
Dupont is known for its golden farmhouse ale, simply named “Saison Dupont.” But Becerra thinks you should try the breweries organic version, the Foret. “This bold, spicy, effervescent beer, at 7.5%, has just the right amount of heft for Fall and bonus: pairs beautifully with just about every dish on the Thanksgiving table.”
The Boulevard Tank 7 saison is a classic offering from Boulevard Brewing company, based in Kansas City, Missouri, with strong notes of grapefruit and an extremely pleasant peppery finish. David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Brewery, says it’s hard to match.
The Best Strong Ales and Barleywines
Strong ales are a wide range of beers characterized by a high ABV. They taste a lot like brown and amber ales, heavy on the malt flavors, but pack a much harder punch. Perfect for sipping slowly and then going immediately to bed.
All of Delirum’s beers are stellar, if potentially overrated, but the dark Nocturnum takes the cake. “I’m not sure what I like more about this Belgian brewery, the label with pink elephants and dancing alligators, or the rich complex flavors from this strong dark ale,” says Sink. “As you sip this and let it warm up (do it!), everything from honey and bananas to cherries and chocolate will cross your palate.”
According to Roper, Brasserie de Rochefort makes a beer for every season. For him the middle beer, which the company calls beer 8, is the perfect beer for fall “even if you’ve never had a calling for the monastic life.” Despite being 9.2% ABV, it’s got a relatively light body and smooth feel.
Most Tripel style beers are a relatively light color, thanks to less roasted malts. That makes Gulden Draak, with its 10.5% ABV, an anomaly in the category. No worry, Roper says the Gulden still goes down easy. “This beer will warm the soul.”
An homage to both a jazz legend and a legendary style of beer. Roper says the Thelonious is “rich, robust and substantial, a slow sipping beer to wrap up an Autumn evening.”
It’s helpful to think of a barleywine as the next step up in strength after more potent ales. According to Sink, they’re the kind of beers that will get you through living in a place with only 6 hours of daylight. “With a focus on the toffee and caramel flavors of the malt and woody notes from the oak barrels, this is a fireside sipper.”
The Best Fall Ciders
Yes, yes, we know ciders aren’t beers. But there is really nothing quite as refreshing as a crisp, slightly tart, just-sweet-enough glass of cider. Several of our experts agreed.
Dupont carefully selects apples from over 6,000 different varieties to create its cider, which Beck says features a perfect balance of sweetness, bitterness, acidity, and funk. “You gotta get your apples on in the fall,” says Beck. “Elegant and bursting with flavor and complexity, this unfiltered cider is perfect in every way.”
Chekaldin loves this cider from ANXO, a craft cidery in DC. “This rosé cider gets its color from red-fleshed apples ANXO sources from VA and WA states. Lots of summery flavors smartly wrapped into a fall apple harvest.”
“Ciders are always at the top of my list this time of year,” says Gunn. Peckham’s ciders, which are made in New Zealand, are some of her favorites.
The Best Pumpkin Beers
Pumpkin beers were another divisive offering among our experts. Most said they were too syrupy and poorly balanced (too much nutmeg!) for their tastes. But if you do want a pumpkin beer, there are a couple that were deemed passable.
“Most pumpkin beers are really pumpkin pie beers with typical pumpkin pie spices—nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon—overwhelming the flavor profile,” says Roper. “Not my favorite style but if you must, the best of the batch is Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.”
“I’m not a pumpkin spice, Starbucks person at all,” says Capers, “but this is the only one I’ll drink.” Unlike your typical pumpkin beer, this one is rounded out with brown sugar and roasted coffee notes.
Beck’s favorite pumpkin beer comes from Schlafly in St. Louis, thanks to the fact that its made with real, fresh pumpkin. “It lacks the artificial flavors you can get in other pumpkin ales and has a nice balance of fall spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Schalfly says that it tastes like “a slice of pie in a bottle.”
O’Reilly genuinely enjoys this pumpkin beer, from the juggernaut that is Colorado’s New Belgium. “If you like pumpkin pie and cinnamon and can handle a little spicy pepper finish, this is fall in a pint glass.”