A tasting of five fall-friendly organic dark brews
According to hippie wisdom, early fall is a delicate time, holistically speaking. The season’s first chill causes sniffly noses and sour moods. To chase the fall blues away, one alternative-medicine-minded friend recently suggested eating plenty of greens.
Well, I already eat plenty of greens. What I really need now is a beer — one dark and flavorful enough to take the bitter edge off of summer’s exit. For this tasting, I went looking for organic beers worthy of therapeutic autumnal sipping.
While coworkers tease me about the “tough job” of tasting beer, the task of actually finding organic brew really is kind of, well, tough. Nationwide, breweries are struggling with short supplies of both barley and hops, and organic versions of those two beer staples are even more rare.
Wolaver’s Brown Ale
$8/6 12-oz. bottles
As a result, there just aren’t that many organic beers on the market. And when you’re narrowing your search to just dark brews, the pickings get even slimmer. After combing the shelves and coolers of beer-geek-friendly stores around Chapel Hill, N.C., I found five solid candidates for the perfect autumnal organic beer. In order to fill out the lineup, I had to revert to two contenders I scrutinized in a tasting conducted last spring: Bison Organic Chocolate Stout and North Coast Cru D’or. But that’s OK — beers taste different in different seasons and contexts, and (unlike soulless corporate product) artisanal brews like the ones under consideration vary by batch.
I gathered several friends of various levels of beer obsession and subjected them to a blind tasting. I asked them to consider the five contenders on the basis of color, aroma, mouthfeel, and flavor, and then rank them by overall preference. Here’s what we found, in reverse order of preference.
Bison Organic Chocolate Stout
Origin: United States (Berkeley, Calif.)
Alcohol: 6.1 percent
This cocoa-flavored, super-dark brown specimen showed poorly at the previous tasting; we judged it disappointingly thin-bodied for a stout, with shrill hop notes on the finish that clashed with its chocolaty flavor profile. This time, it brought up the rear again — but it fared much better all the same. I found it much more balanced than the previous time I tried it, no longer ruined by an out-of-place blast of hops. I still find it a little thick for a stout, but still a worthy choice for fall sipping. Stout-haters — and there were a couple on the panel — hated it, though, lowering its score.
North Coast Cru D’Or Belgian-Style Ale
Origin: United States (Fort Bragg, Calif.)
Alcohol: 8 percent
Price: $6.99/four 12-oz. bottles
If the Bison fared better than it did last time, the other repeat contender, North Coast Cru D’Or, nose-dived. Last time, I found it “big and effervescent, with powerful caramel, toffee, and orange notes leading to a gentle, mellow hop finish … altogether, a party in a bottle.” This time, not so much. While I got some orange notes, I judged the overall flavor pleasant but muted. Why the difference? The bottles I got my hands on this time could have been past their prime, or ill-treated on the trip from California to North Carolina, or … any number of other factors. Even so, the panel generally agreed that it was a perfectly pleasant beer. One enthusiast found a complex, floral aroma with some chocolate notes.
Pisgah Valdez Coffee Stout
Origin: United States (Black Mountain, N.C.)
Alcohol: 6.8 percent
Price: $8/imperial pint
As with the Bison Chocolate, the stout-haters deplored this one, but most everyone else found it delightful. It offers a strong roasted-coffee flavor on the nose, and a lightly creamy, almost frothy mouthfeel. Many coffee stouts have a chocolaty, espresso-like flavor profile; this one tastes more like a good cup of medium-roasted brewed coffee, with a long, bright finish. As with the Bison chocolate stout, I found it a little light-bodied for the stout style — not quite as unctuous as the Valdez reference suggests. Still, an impressive beer, especially for coffee lovers.
Lamsbräu Organic Dunkel
Origin: Bavaria, Germany
Alcohol: not available
Price: $8/four 12-oz. bottles
This dark lager, the only non-U.S. offering in our lineup, struck me as pretty close to an ideal fall sipping brew. On the nose, it offered fruity yeast; small, tight bubbles gave the mouthfeel some zip. On the palate, it offers a nice blend of toasty, chocolaty malt and nuts. German beers can be too sweet for me; not this one. Others liked it, too. This one placed in everyone’s top three.
Wolaver’s Brown Ale
Origin: United States (Middlebury, Vt.)
Alcohol: 5.7 percent
Price: $8/6 12-oz. bottles
This rock-solid beer took top honors, placing in nearly everyone’s top three and gaining two first-place votes. I found this dark-copper beer flawless, balanced, enjoyable — not exactly exciting, but by no means boring. On the nose, it offers toasty malts, shifting to a light toffee sweetness on the palate. There are just enough bitter hops here to balance the maltiness, and not a bit more. The mouthfeel is not too thin and not too thick — fitting for sipping in a season that falls between summer and winter.
Bottom Line: I went looking for beers appropriate for fall sipping — and batted 1,000. I wasn’t blown away by any of these beers, but found them all more than acceptable. And in truth, who wants an over-the-top beer in autumn anyway? In a season that transitions us from too hot to too cold, solid-but-unexciting beers seem just right. And our top beer, Wolaver’s Brown, fits the bill.