Roy Fisher, head brewer at Waverly Brewing Co., shares some of their plans for upcoming fall beers. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
Sure, fall doesn't officially begin for a few weeks, but judging from store shelves — and the increasing number of pumpkin-flavored items seemingly filling them each year — you might think the season was already in full swing.
Local beer brewers have noticed the trend's earlier arrival each year, and some are ready to push back. To them, a wide range of flavors should be associated with autumn, but mainstream consumerism seems preoccupied with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and other flavors baked into a pumpkin pie.
Let's give the orange gourd a break, they say.
"There's nothing wrong with it. People like it," said Justin Dvorkin, co-owner of Oliver Brewing Co. "But I feel like we've let it define the entire season long enough."
Some find craft beer's changeover from sweltering summer beers to bundled-up winter brews — and its lack of a middle ground — too jarring.
"Going from drinking your daily pale ale summer beer and then all of a sudden, you're smacked in the face with this pumpkin pie — it's kind of obnoxious," said Chris Brohawn of RAR Brewing. "There's no transition. It's like Maryland weather, honestly."
With these sentiments in mind, we found five new Maryland brews aiming to widen the parameters of what should be considered a fall beer. For those excited to move on from the light ales but not yet ready for dark-as-night porters and heavy stouts, start here.
For some, fall's arrival is forever linked to adolescent nostalgia — or, more specifically, a return to high school.
So when John Jester and Mark Gnatowski, a couple of home brewers, recently approached their friend and fellow Calvert Hall graduate Roy Fisher about creating a drinkable ode to their alma mater, the Waverly Brewing Company head brewer gladly agreed.
The result is Cardinal Rules, a 4.7 percent ABV red ale whose eye-catching hue nods to the all-boys school's winged mascot, Fisher said. They achieved the color by selecting malts that naturally look red, like roasted barley and red wheat, along with "a little secret ingredient" — hibiscus flowers.
"They're bright, pinkish red," Fisher said. "The color is spot-on."
Fisher is very pleased with the finished product, which made its debut in the Waverly taproom in Hampden last weekend. Because of the barley and the fruitiness from the hibiscus, Fisher believes the beer hits a pleasing range of notes for a beer drinker.
"We hit it on almost an umami kind of thing," he said. "It goes through the sweet, sour and bitter thing, and then it finishes really clean."
Because quantities are limited, those interested will have to travel to the taproom to try it (or visit Racers Cafe in Parkville, one of the few bars that will get a keg of it, Fisher said). He expects it to be around for a month.
Cardinal Rules is an early-fall beer, and Fisher said Waverly plans to produce more offerings for the season, including a peach sour and Waverly's first ciders, made with local apples and pears.
"There's a lot of unturned stones out there," Fisher said.
Peabody came up with Sir Barton, a slightly hoppy saison (think highly carbonated pale ale) that gives off the aroma of a light Belgian Wit but finishes with a dry pepperiness, O'Keefe said.
Despite packing an alcoholic punch (7 percent ABV), Sir Barton tastes lighter than you'd think, he said.
"It's got American wheat and oats in it. … It's not too dark," O'Keefe said. "It really works well as a transitional beer into early fall, and not so much late fall."
Released in mid-August in six-packs, the limited-edition beer can also be found on draft at local bars (Parts and Labor, Birroteca) and the Peabody brewery for the next couple of months, he said.
O'Keefe said the name is a tribute to Sir Barton, the first horse to win the Triple Crown, including the Preakness, in 1919.
"Something Peabody has always done is draw on the heritage of Baltimore," O'Keefe said. "Maryland has always had this storied history with horse racing, and we just wanted to bring in some of that influence."
Since opening in March, Monument City Brewing had been focused on cranking out their flagship beer, Rye 51, to meet local demand, co-owner Ken Praay said.
But recently, they've caught up with orders, which has freed up some tanks to experiment. On Sept. 9, Monument will celebrate the release of its latest brew, First Cup, a brown lager made with cold-brew coffee provided by Charm City Coffee Roasters, the brewery's Highlandtown neighbor.
Made with Cascade hops, the 4.5 percent ABV beer is a straightforward, drinkable beer for the early fall months, Praay said.
"It is definitely not a heavy beer," Praay said. "It's very clean, very crisp, but still has some malty characteristics."
The brew's malts tap into sweeter notes like caramel and chocolate, and give the beer its "backbone," he said. The coffee provides "an interesting dynamic" to the lager.
"One thing we want to do is stay connected with other small businesses, especially those in the neighborhood," Praay said, adding that Charm City Coffee Roasters owner Chad Ford introduced himself when Monument first moved to Highlandtown.
Praay admitted there are trendier styles of beers Monument could have done, but First Cup — available at the taproom starting next week, as well as at bars like Max's Taphouse and Alewife — is the type of beer he wants when the weather starts to get chillier. (A small quantity without the cold brew, known as Last Cup, will be available at the taproom as well.)
"We love our brown ale," Praay said. "They're probably not the sexiest of styles, but we dig them."
Near the top of the year, RAR Brewing poked fun at itself and the craft-beer world by releasing Lumber Sexual, an India Pale Ale designed to warm drinkers up in the dead of winter.
Later this month, RAR will release a new variation of Lumber Sexual — same name, but different recipe, and wrapped in a blue flannel. Brohawn wanted to create a beer with the same malt base and boozy punch (8.8 percent ABV), but one that tasted more refreshing.
The name and buffalo plaid can design were references to "how all the beer geeks are super lumber sexual," Brohawn said recently with a laugh.
In pop-culture, the term is recent but real, and is often used to describe white, bearded men who resemble lumberjacks but are more likely to hold a latte than a saw. Customers loved it.
To create the new Lumber Sexual, RAR chose hops that would infuse citrus notes into the final product. Waiting to add the hops toward the end of the production process also added a brightness to the beer, he said.
"You're just getting a huge burst of flavor instead of bitterness," Brohawn said. "This one is going to be a lot juicier, more floral."
That "little, subtle touch" of sweetness speaks to the transition from summer to fall, he said.
Those hoping to try the new Lumber Sexual, either on draft or in cans, should make the trek to Cambridge, since quantities are limited, Brohawn said. The brewery will celebrate its release, and other new beers, on Sept. 23 with RARtoons, a bi-annual party with a breakfast buffet and music starting at 9 a.m.
"We know we're out of the way, so we put it on ourselves to turn every can release into a good time and into the best event we can," he said.
As sour beers have grown in popularity, so have brewers' conceptions about when and how to make them. The super-tart stuff is associated with the hottest months of summer, but some sours work as temperatures drop and air gets crisper.
Enter Inertia Creeps, Oliver's new kettle sour ale fermented with raspberry puree. Scheduled for release in cans and on draft at the brewery Friday, the 7 percent ABV beer waves goodbye to summer while opening its arms to the cooler fall months, said Dvorkin. (The name is a reference to a 1998 song by the English trip-hop group Massive Attack of the same title.)
It's a beer made for when "you're not in winter mode yet," he said. "You're still putting on the hooded sweatshirt by the fire pit."
The raspberry flavor blends with the sour ale well, and has enough of body "to stand up to some food," he said.
"Some sour beers are really, really sour," Dvorkin said, "but this one hits right in the middle."
The beer is part of a collaboration project with Manor Hill Brewing in Ellicott City. The two breweries came up with the brew's sour base together, and then added the fruit flavors of their choice to create two different beers. (Also named Inertia Creeps, Manor Hill's uses sour cherries and orange peel, and can be found at their brewery starting today.)
Kegs and 12-ounce cans will make their way into local distribution (including select liquor stores and bars like Pratt Street Ale House and Five and Dime Ale House), Dvorkin said.
Time will tell if the public is ready to accept sours outside of summer, but either way, Dvorkin is simply excited to see breweries challenging consumer expectations and redefining seasonal flavors.
"Fall is not winter. It can be warm. It can be a little cooler at night," he said. "I'd love to see more people taking a stab at what fall can be."