|One beer away from paradise|
For many, craft beer has become an integral element of their summer rituals. Still, with the craft realm growing every day and a steady stream of newcomers making the leap from the tasteless, faceless macro dictatorship, figuring out what to drink can leave beer lovers scratching their head. We are entering into uncharted territory in terms of the sheer wealth of options available to us and, admittedly, not all of them are particularly palatable. Worse still, with slower turnover on the shelves, a beer that had been intended for late-year, cold weather consumption might still be sweating it out, awaiting the unassuming consumer who is in for a moment of unseasonable disappointment.
As a personal aside, there are two things that I absolutely abhor hearing from fellow craft beer fans: the phrase "palate fatigue" and a declaration that they have to stop drinking a particular beer style because of the season ("No more stouts for me bro--summer's here.") I pride myself on my ability to think for myself and so I choose not to allow the weather to dictate what I drink: if I'm in the mood for a thick, viscous bourbon barrel aged imperial stout and it's 95 degrees out, I'm drinking it.
Now, with that said, I will readily admit that the weather can and does have an impact on the enjoyability of certain brews and the preferability of some styles over others. I drink beer purely for taste so I couldn't care less about how sessionable or thirst-quenching they are but I understand and respect that, for others, those might be the primary factors in deciding upon a beer on a given day. Warmer weather in turn engenders favor for hoppier, lighter-bodied brews whereas the cold climes of winter warrant deeper, darker, even spiced brews.
For our purposes here, we will focus on some beer styles that cater well to summer's sweat-soaked, fun-filled days. These are beers that can be consumed anywhere your warm weather vacation finds you: by a grill, on a boat, at the beach, in the forest, or wherever you choose to spend your hard-earned downtime. To simplify things further, I will focus on the idea of providing a sampling of beers to newcomers by way of a self-assembled flight. Since some of these shares might occur at home or near a grill, I will also include some food pairing suggestions.
With any sampling, less is usually more, so I would recommend limiting yourself to four or five different beers and styles. Beyond that, you'll start to lose appreciation for the individual intricacies of the beers. It's also better to cover a broad swath of beer ground rather than running in circles through the same familiar territory (most likely hoppy brews in this case). For our purposes, we will explore the following broad beer categories to help fashion the perfect summer sampling: Fruit, Hoppy/Bitter, Sour, Light Malty.
For many, fruit beers represent a reprehensible stain upon the craft consciousness; for others, they are the gateway into the realm that we all love. Regardless of your personal stance, it behooves you to include a fruit beer simply because of how perfectly suited the style is to summer quaffing. Many fruit beers fall short in their promise of delicious drinkability but some rise above the rest and warrant the respect of their more renowned brethren.
Another benefit of fruit beers is that they are inoffensive to the palate meaning that they play well with others: you won't have to worry about where you place them in the depth chart. The fact that they can pair well with many foods, particularly salads, means that they serve also as the perfect meal accompaniment or, in certain cases, they can become the dessert centerpiece at the end of a meal. Simply decide upon a fruit and then scan the shelves for available offerings!
Right now, Ballast Point's Watermelon Dorado is trending highly as is their Grapefruit Sculpin--a new mainstay of the fruity IPA culture. Both beers are phenomenal but tend toward the more bitter side so if you're not a fan of that type of beer then you might want to consider something on the sweeter end. Founders' Rubaeus is a personal favorite of mine--a raspberry ales prominent in flavor but far from potent in alcohol content. RJ Rocker's Son of a Peach is excellent as well if you're looking for something a bit sweeter.
If you have a hearty sweet tooth then you can also consider the Samuel Smith line of Organic Fruit beers. They're all solid but are heavy on fruitiness. The Leinenkugel collection of fruit beers are a bit tamer in the fruit department but are decent places to start as well.
HOPPY, BITTER BREWS
Every beer cross section should contain a bitter representative. With a plethora of IPA and Pale Ale options available on every shelf, it's all but impossible to recommend "the best" choice because it varies by distributional and seasonal availability. Founders' All Day IPA is a decent place to start as is Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA. If you can find their Sixty-One, which is the 60 Minute IPA blended with syrah grape must, that might be the best of both worlds and a great segue from or to the fruit beer.
Dale's Pale Ale is an excellent option for those who like a greater malt presence and it's availability is likely higher than some of the other recommendations that I could make. If you're local to New York or New Jersey then you can't beat Kane Brewing's Head High or Carton Brewing's Boat Beer with the latter representing a less bitter, grapefruit-laden alternative to the hoppier and more difficult to obtain former offering from Kane.
Beyond that, your best bet would simply be to go to your local bottle shop and to ask someone there for a recommendation based upon their selection and your individual preferences!
Sour beers represent the tapping out point for many craft beer drinkers. They are so utterly unusual--so vastly different in every aspect--that they are almost impossible to compare to other styles. Fortunately, as with all things in craft beer, there are varying extremes. With sours, arguably the most approachable style is the Gose.
Beers of the Gose style are slightly start, mildly bitter and acidic, and faintly salty--essentially seaside in a bottle. They are refreshing and pair well with salt-laden foods like tortilla chips and salsa as well as blander alternatives like grilled chicken and rice. Think of them as being akin to the perfect Corona sans the lime and the pomp and circumstance of inserting the wedge into the bottle.
Another great sour style is the Beliner Weisse. Due to its remarkably low alcohol content (typically below four percent abv), it's another refreshing, drinkable beer that won't cloud your judgement while scanning the sky beach-side. Unfortunately, it is incredibly tart, which can prove to be off-putting to many. In fact, the traditional way of drinking the beer is with the addition of a fruit syrup, typically raspberry, as pictured at right. Torani makes an excellent raspberry syrup that you can purchase online at Amazon.
Of course there are other sour styles but they aren't for the faint of heart. My favorite is The Bruery's Sour in the Rye--an American Wild Ale that has the perfect amount of funk and bite that makes it an ideal year-round beer. If you can find it then I would definitely recommend trying it out! As far as Gose and Berliner Weisse recommendations go, look for Westbrook Brewing's Gose or Almanac Brewing's Golden Gate Gose as well as Dogfish Head's Festina Pêche, Bell Brewing's Oarsman, or The Bruery's Hottenroth.
LIGHT, MALTY BREWS
Finally, this catchall category covers a wide variety of styles that are all suited for summer. You should include something to serve as the malt anchor for your sampler but you might not want to commit to something that's too roasty or full in the mouthfeel like a stout, porter, or brown ale. Instead, looking at styles like the American Blonde Ale and Hefeweizens might be a better bet. Both offer solid malt backbones but in lighter bodies with excellent supporting flavors.
Sweet but not overly so, ales such as Victory Brewing's Summer Love and Kona Brewing's Big Wave Golden Ale represent a decent set of examples of the style though Narragansett's Summer Ale is a sleeper favorite. Hefeweizen-wise, you can't go wrong with the tried and true such as Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Sierra Nevada's Kellerweis, and Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, all of which feature excellent fruity esters alongside the traditional banana and clove elements that are inextricably linked to the style.
A new favorite though far more difficult to obtain because of distribution is Lost Forty's Love Honey--a honey bock that is ultra-smooth with the perfect amount of honey sweetness.
All of the above beers and styles pair perfectly with practically anything you could put on your plate. Chicken dishes will work the best but even burgers and hot dogs work either in unison or contrapuntally with the flavors and characteristics of the aforementioned brews. Regardless of what you drink, just make sure you enjoy it and don't be afraid to expand your craft beer horizons. Happy summer, everybody!