After a bit and cool (I must also add comfortable and refreshing) spring, summer is finally starting to set in up here. In a couple of weeks I’ll be headed to Chicago - tell me that isn’t going to be a total blast. I am looking forward to hitting some of the premium establishments in that town, and cannot wait to check out Three Floyds and Floosmoor. Anyone within a day’s drive of Chicago, or with the financial means to fly, should stop making excuses and just go. A disgusting array of beers will be available. Numbers fiends will go nuts, and those looking to relax with some fine pints and good friends will also get what they need. Can’t get time off work? Quit. Significant other giving you grief? Kick ’em to the curb. No money? Beg, borrow or steal. This event will only get bigger, and soon you’ll be making the necessary arrangements to be there, so you may as well start this year, because next year we’re going to Bamberg!
With the summer weather comes summer beers. In the past, this was the seasonal that brewers mailed in. In the mid-90’s it seemed as though there were only two types of summer beer - wheat, and raspberry wheat. Maybe I just stopped noticing them, but there don’t seem to be so many raspberry wheats around these days, but there are certainly more than a few wheats. And what fruit beers do get noticed these days have a wonderfully refreshing character, like the Apricot Coriander Ale from Bethlehem Brew Works, Viking from L’Inox or Dogfish Head Aprihop.
Wheat lends a lightness of body and slight acidity to beer, which is what makes it a staple of the beer drinker’s summer. For my money, the sometimes heavy yeastiness and high levels of residual sugars hinders the refreshment factor of German-style wheats. So when you find one that brings all of the essential elements of the style together and would quench the thirst of a roofer in July, you’ve got a winner. For me, Denison’s is that Weissbier, and finally we’re allowed to drink it outside of the pub! I’ll be taking a keg for personal use at the cottage this August long weekend.
The other major wheat styles are more refreshing. Witbier is a style that a surprising number of beer geeks deem unworthy, but the esters and spices work well in conjunction with the wheat to bring what I find a wonderfully complex yet phenomenally refreshing beer. The best wit, Blanche de Bruges, is a little too malty to be a true sunshine beer, but Victory Whirlwind Wit is a good choice, as are Korenwolf, Hitachino Nest, and Blanche de Brooklyn. The most refreshing of all is the soured strong wit La Salamandre, from BFM, a small micro in Bov’s neck of the woods in the French part of Switzerland.
Berliner Weisse is the ultimate in refreshment. Never, ever, upon pain of excommunication from the Ratebeer community, put any syrup or flavouring in your berliner weisse. If you cannot handle the acidity, just suck it up and get drinking until you get it. It’s worth it. Because if you can handle the straight up acidity of Berliner Kindl Weisse, you’re ready for the next step - Schultheiss Berliner Weisse. Good luck finding any, mind you, but if you visit Berlin you can check out this next level of the style.
Now that you’ve acclimatized yourself, you need some gueuze. It is almost unthinkable that something this complex can also provide summer refreshment, but it’s true. Any oude gueuze will do. The versions with sugar added are gueuze in name only, and though they might be refreshing, they’ll lack the complexity that takes the experience that new level.
Two other styles with varying degrees of sourness should also be considered for your summer drinking. Flemish sour ales, especially the lighter ones like Rodenbach Red or Liefmans Kriek, provide excellent refreshment. Fruit lambics, especially fresh-tasting, juicy examples like Cantillon Kriek or Lindeman’s Pêche, are also good patio beers, and go well with summer fare like fruit salads, shortcake desserts, or vanilla ice cream.
Hops are also refreshing. In England, supreme refreshment can be found in the form of both bitter (Fuller’s Chiswick, Smiles Best) and golden ales (Rooster’s Hooligan, Archer’s Summer Ale). The English have really taken to golden cask ales the past few years, and have elevated the style to new heights. While we in North America talk the big talk about using golden ales as transition, or "training wheel" beers, in truth the vast majority of these are as bland and forgettable as any macro lager. In England, they’re a little more clear on the concept, and brew their golden ales to be light, hoppy, complex and refreshing. They love throwing American hops in these brews, too, because it is a relatively new concept over there and drinkers don’t go into a golden ale with the same preconceived notions regarding flavour that they carry into a pint of bitter.
Kölsch is quite refreshing, but except for draft Reissdorf in the US, you’ll need to go to Köln to get a proper taste of this style. I don’t know if I’ve ever had one over here that measures up to the best that city has to offer. Garde, Sion, Früh and Gäffel are my favourites.
Pilsner is a dirty word to the misinformed. Of course, it is sometimes hard to fault people for being misinformed because the pilsner myth is perpetuated by just about everybody in the beer business. Some people seem to think that any pale lager is a pilsner, by reason of the fact that pilsner is a pale lager. That is working backwards, though, and in truth pilsner is but one type of pale lager. In deference to the people of Plzen, any beer referred to as a pilsner should bear the characteristics of the beer brewed in that city - rich gold colour, soft body, moderate carbonation, and a huge hop character. You can’t lack for hops and still be a pilsner. To claim that a Miller Lite-type beer is a pilsner is to accept that Kraft Singles are indeed cheddar.
But I digress. A well-made pilsner is a very refreshing beer. I’ve been drinking a lot of Christoffel Blond lately, and also go for Wernesgrüner and Bitburger. A local beer, King Pilsner, shows promise as well. If I could get ’t IJ Plzen, Prima Pils or Jever, I would. I find Czech pilsners too heavy and malty to be refreshing, though they are good beers.
Pale Ales, notably of the American and Indian varieties, are often superbly refreshing. I just love a pale with lots of citrusy C-hop flavours, good dose of esters and a clean pale malt backbone. Look for Orchard Street Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, New River Pale, or Little Creatures Pale. If it is a rainy night or you’re out camping, slightly heartier examples like Burning River, Alpha King, or the new Tankhouse Pale from Mill Street here in Toronto are all worth having on hand.
India pales are a tougher proposition. I probably disagree with more than a few Ratebeerians on this one, but for refreshment value I have to go with the lighter examples of the style. Any with a strong crystal malt note will inherently be less refreshing. No worries though, because there are plenty of beauties to go around - Big Time Bhagwan’s, Lost Coast Indica, Big Daddy, El Toro IPA, 60 Minute, Sweetwater IPA and Swale’s Indian Summer.
Of course, it’s not always about refreshment. Sometimes you just have to say "<bleep> it," and get some St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, Fant6me, Hop Rod Rye, or Expedition Stout.