Friday, July 20, 2007

Summer Beer (Originally published August, 2004)

A warm summer breeze lilts lazily over the patio as I sit semi-reclined in a comfortable chair sipping at a tall glass of cold beer. This is my ideal summer evening. Throw in some good food, friends and conversation and the scene would be complete. This dream however could easily turn into a nightmare if the beer turned out to be Bud-light, Coors light or that blue and white-labeled swill from south of the border. You see, I’m a beer snob, and this summer fantasy needs a real beer not some large brewery “lawnmower” beer.

In the past I’ve written about the benefits of eating seasonally, summer fruits in summer, asparagus in spring, hearty dishes of root vegetables and roasted meats in the fall and winter months, and the sipping of beer is no different. For centuries European beer makers have released seasonal specialties. In winter months they release high alcohol warmers like, imperial stouts, scotch ales, and barley wines, whose alcohol content can bring warmth even on the coldest, dreary night. In fall and spring seasonally appropriate festbeirs, bocks, marzens oktoberfests, dunkels appear. Not to be outdone, American craft brewers have for the past decade or so, warmed to the idea of seasonal brews and produced a slew of some very good beers to whittle away lazy summer days and evenings.

Summer beers should be refreshing and a bit lighter than the highly alcoholic winter and fall warmers. When I say lighter, I don’t mean “light beer.” Sorry you low carb fanatics, there really isn’t any excuse for consuming anything with “light” or “lite” on the label. Unless of course you’re19 and drinking at a dorm or frat party, where most of the beer ends up on the floor and everybody is too drunk to care about what they’re drinking. Then and only then is tasteless and less filling fine. Lighter in this case means lighter in body and alcohol content, not flavor and color.

For the uninitiated both large and small craft brewers offer specialty summer ales and lagers (ales and lagers differ in brewing temperature and type of yeast used in the fermentation process. Ales are generally darker, richer and feature a more complex flavor, than the pale, lighter and clean tasting lagers.). Many of these summer beers are spiked with hints of lemon, other fruit and spice. Boston Brewing, makers of Sam Adams, one of the better large commercial brewers, offers Sam Adams Summer Ale, a wheat beer that they claim is a “reinterpretation” of a Belgian white beer. White beers originated near Brussels, a wheat growing region, during the 14th century. These crisp wheat-based ales were often brewed with coriander, juniper berries, and orange peel. The style was called "white" because of its light color and cloudiness -- the result of suspended wheat proteins in the beer. If you prefer a smaller craft brewed summer ale, try Pyramid Ales and Lagers Curve Ball Kolche, or Saxaer’s Lemon Lager, both offer great crisp and clean German lager flavor with just a hint of lemon.

For many, myself included, the idea of adding fruit, spice or any other adjuncts to my beer (brewer speak for anything that goes into beer that’s not water, malt, yeast and hops) just doesn’t seem right. While the above beers have garnered rave reviews and the adoration of lots of fans I prefer my beer to be just that, real beer. During the summer I reach for a refreshing wheat beer (hold the lemon), or a traditional pale ale. Both of which are excellent summer choices and pair well with the food of the season.

Wheat beer, a beer that contains up to 60% wheat-malt along with more traditional barley malts, with their low hoppiness (less bitter because of the type of hops or in some cases a lack of hops), soft malt and spice and fruit flavors (brought on by the yeast) are ideal grilled fish and shell fish. In general, most American wheat beers are intended to be light summer thirst quenchers, imbued with the unique, refreshing flavor of wheat malt. They taste a bit like German wheat beers, but without the spicy/phenolic yeast character of true weizenbier/weissbier. The best American wheat beers are Pryamid Hefeweizen, Ramstein Blonde, Ramstein Krystall or, Rouge Brewery’s Half-a-Weizen.

To truly understand the complexity of a wheat beer you should try one of the many German or Belgian style wheats. These beers have all of the complex characteristics offered by the style. The best, at least to me, are,] Edelweiss Dunkel Weizenbier, Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier, Celis White, and Berliner Kindl Weisse these beers are truly indescribable and the flavors, yeast, bananas, orange peel, clove, and some say, band-aid and latex, can overwhelm the beer drinking novice. For those of you who find those strong flavors a bit too much, a squeeze of lemon into the glass tames the flavors and creates a very refreshing summer drink.

Nothing goes better with summer cookouts, picnics or just about any summer activity than a traditional pale ale. Pale ale is an English beer style, that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century, but because of prohibition and the popularity of lagers in the U.S. it nearly disappeared. If not for America's microbrewery movement, this classic style might have become extinct. American micro-brewers embraced the old style, and rather than re-creating English versions of it, they instead adapted the recipes to include distinctive North American ingredients (hops and yeasts) to create a new, distinctly American variant of the style. Compared to its old world relative, American pale ale has a more straight-forward hop flavor and aroma, a malty body and an almost fruity or citrus-like finish. To many Americans this is the dreaded “bitter beer,” but to those of us who love beer this style is Manna in a bottle.

Aside from its flavor the best thing about pale ale is the tremendous variety of the style. All bars, pubs and stores will offer some form of American pale ale. My favorites include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Firestone Pale Ale, Flying Dog Doggie Style Pale Ale, Left Hand Jackman's Pale Ale, Redhook ESB, Full Sail Pale Ale, Pyramid Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Mendocino Blue Heron Pale Ale, Harpoon Ale, Stone Pale Ale, and many, many more, the choices here really are endless.

Seasonal eating, seasonal drinking. It's time to celebrate the diversity of a great pint. Whether you're in a beer garden or preparing a midsummer's night feast, the pleasures and possibilities of summer ales and lagers are as long as a summer's day. Crack open a new beer tonight and hoist it high in a toast to summer.
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