Long before the leaves change and the fair rolls into town, orange six-packs plastered with festive gourds and "Oktoberfest" labels arrive on store shelves, reminding you that it's time to drink the new batch of fall beers. But beyond the pumpkins and the steins, there are a slew of great brews out there this time of year in ye olde Holy City.
Many of the Oktoberfest-labeled beers that you'll find in fall are actually Märzen-style brews, a medieval-era beer with German roots. Märzens are named for the month of March, when the beers traditionally offered at Oktoberfest celebrations are brewed. In the Middle Ages, brewers started creating large-batches of their fall beers in the springtime before the summer heat made it hard to work around the clock, and by fall, they were ready for imbibing.
If you're going to drink an Oktoberfest beer, you're going to want to do it right, so pick up a bottle of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen ($3.99 for 500mL, Charleston Beer Exchange.) A strong pour shows a rich copper color with a firm but smooth head that sticks around longer than you'd expect. The Ayinger is light, but full-flavored, with a clean, malty taste that's complemented by a good bit of carbonation. The guys at CBX recommend this as one of their favorite Oktoberfest brews.
Locally, you can find Westbrook Brewing Co.'s Märzenbier ($6, Edmund's Oast) on tap around town or in bottles. Sipping it at Edmund's Oast recently, Westbrook's Märzen drinks pretty smooth, with a subtly sweet smell giving way to a nutty, malty taste with a surprisingly opinionated herbal flavor for the beer type. It's an easy-drinker, but it isn't the by-the-book Märzen that you'd expect.
If only a pumpkin beer will do, a sixer of New Belgium's Pumpkick ($1.58 each, CBX) is a solid take on the ubiquitous seasonal beer. Right away, the bright orange pour jumps out at you as a pumpkin beer. Without the ungourdly spicy kick you'll find in a lot of these beers, Pumpkick is more pie than spice, but the sweetness fades to a tart finish after a few sips.
Good fall beer doesn't have to be made in March or need a pumpkin label either. Bell's Best Brown Ale ($1.83 each, CBX), out of Michigan, will do you just fine in the cool weather. More of a clear copper brown ale, Best Brown Ale has a smoky, tobacco-tinged nose that doesn't have the chalky, bitter aftertaste characteristic of a lot of brown ales. The finish is smooth and doesn't linger too long, making it a reliable choice as far as brown ales go.
Coast Brewing Co. out of North Charleston is also giving fall a go with its September Saison ($6, Edmund's Oast) that just got put on tap in many local beer halls. A citrusy saison with a frothy head that comes on slightly sour, the September is strong and enjoyably flavorful without being overpowering. Coast has been running a cask version on tap at their Navy Yard brewery, and co-owner Jaime Tenny tells us they're planning on putting a saison in their regular rotation.
For another nuanced take on a seasonal, Stillwater's Autumnal amber farmhouse ale ($2.69 each, CBX) is worth a try. What starts as a standard, strong-and-malty sip from the amber-red pour changes into an herby-red wine flavor that finishes pretty dry. You can definitely taste the higher alcohol-content here, but you don't lose Stillwater's attempt to combine German and saison styles over the course of the beer.