This time of year, it's clear that winter is coming. Peak fall colors have come and gone, and the remaining leaves have turned brown. There is a cold snap to the air, but the deep freeze has yet to set in. And the ominous threat of snow hangs ever present.

The season is perfect for malt-forward beers with colors that match the scene. Smooth and soothing, but not overbearing, American amber and brown ales are just the ticket. Caramel malt, toffee and subtle roastiness foreshadow the bold and boozy beers to come, but low alcohol and generally light body make them perfect easy drinkers for the ups and downs of a Minnesota fall.

Both styles came of age in the early days of American craft brewing but are rooted in the ales of England. English browns and strong bitters inspired American brewers who were looking to bring variety and flavor to a world of homogenous pale lagers. They took those styles and amped them up, applying American sensibilities and ingredients like citrus and pine-resin hops of the Pacific Northwest.

American amber ale is a cousin of American pale ale, but with a greater emphasis on malt. Caramel is always the lead, accompanied by citrus and resin American hops. But brewers have wide latitude on bitterness, alcohol and the intensity of hop flavor.

The Unforgiven from Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls, Wis., used to be my go-to "I just feel like a simple beer" pick at bars and restaurants. I seldom see it on tap anymore, but it's still readily available in bottles. This is a solid, easy-drinking beer; nothing is over the top. There is plenty of caramel malt flavor, but it's not sweet. Medium bitterness serves as a counterbalance. Herbal/citrus hops provide a subtle accompaniment. It's a great anytime beer.

Amber Ale from Bell's Brewery in Michigan is another old classic of the style and a must-try for anyone who loves malty beers. Caramel leads, but it's joined by light notes of brown bread with a toasty crust. Bitterness is low, as is the herbal hop flavor. It finishes dry with a subtle tinge of toast.

Closer to home, try Elevated Amber Ale from Stillwater's Lift Bridge Brewing Co. This one pushes the rye-bread malt just a touch further than Bell's. The characteristic caramel is still prominent. It's complemented by a subtle sweetness from honey used in the brewing. Bitterness is very low and hop flavor is next to none. Elevated Amber reminded me of an Oktoberfest märzen with extra caramel flavor.

Finnegans Irish Amber is another local amber ale that has been a mainstay of Twin Cities beer. It's lighter than most ambers and has a more pronounced toasted grain presence in addition to the caramel. There is even a slight hint of roast if you look for it. It's an approachable easy drinker that will appeal to a wide range of beer fans. You can also do good while enjoying good beer: Through its Finnegans Community Fund, the Minneapolis brewery funnels a large part of its profits to local food shelves.

In the early days of amber ale there was a hopped-up West Coast version of the style that is now sometimes called red IPA. Blood of the Unicorn from Chicago's Pipeworks Brewing Co. is bold in every way. It's hop-forward with assertive bitterness. Grapefruit, citrus peel and pine-resin hop flavors take center stage. The hops sit on a sturdy base of caramel malt with light touches of toasted grain. The malt mostly disappears in the dry finish, leaving only citrus and pine behind.

Bold, brown and bitter

Like its lighter-colored cousin, American brown ale has roots in early craft brewing, again applying American sensibilities and ingredients to a traditional English style. The alcohol is slightly higher and the flavors a bit bolder. Bitterness and roasted malt are more pronounced compared with an English brown. Hop flavor is also boosted and typically features the distinctive character of American hop varieties.

Moose Drool from Big Sky Brewing Co. in Montana is one of the best-known examples. It's flavorful enough to merit attention, but not so much as to get in the way of communing with friends. It's a perfect background beer for a late fall social gathering. Medium-sweet with an off-dry finish, it features milk chocolate as the main note. There is virtually no burnt or bitter roast. Moderate bitterness and herbal/citrus hops complete the picture.

Ellie's Brown Ale from Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado is another old-school American brown. This snappy beer has sharp bitterness stemming from both hops and roasted malt. Bitter dark chocolate is the main note, with nut, toast and brown sugar accents smoothing out the edges. Subtle herbal hops ride over the top.

Excelsior Brewing Company's Bayside Brown Ale is a full-flavored yet balanced version of the style. It floods the tongue with a rush of Tootsie Roll-like chocolate. Caramel and biscuit malt and a touch of grassy hops add layers of complexity. There is only a hint of roasted barley character until a late kick of roast enhances the dryness of the finish.

California's Anderson Valley Brewing Co. puts its own spin on the style with Black Rice Ale. The addition of Chinese black rice gives this beer a delicious, toasted nut flavor that melds seamlessly with low levels of chocolate malt and dark rye bread. Hints of raisiny dried fruits make their way to the surface as the beer warms in the glass. At just 3.8% alcohol, this is a good one for an extended bonfire on a crisp fall night.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at