Summer beers are a breed apart. The best of them provide refreshment and quench the thirst of red-blooded American men and women across the country who desperately need liquid sustenance after weekend afternoons mowing the lawn and grilling, or days lounging on the beach. And because these folks deserve only the best the world's breweries have to offer, each year when the sun starts shining full-force, a flood of special edition summer beers hits liquor store shelves.
Summer beer is, of course, a relative thing. Some people are perfectly happy quaffing a stout or porter on a 90 plus degree day. But most of us are looking for something lighter – a beer that's at its best when ice cold and doesn't have too much weight. A summer beer is crisp, refreshing, and demands more with every sip. That's why lagers, pilsners, witbiers and saisons are the first to be dropped in coolers as America embarks for picnics, clambakes and bonfires - and why so many brewers are willing to cook up batches of something special. The challenge, of course, is determining which of these bottles and cans are worth dropping some of the pocket change that's all too rare these days on.
Fortunately, there are some great ones to spend that hard-earned cash on. Here are a few:
Surly Schadenfreude – Sure, it may have been named the most hipster state in the country, but if any state knows how to squeeze every possible bit of pleasure out of summer, it's Minnesota. Surly is known for its sometimes brutally hop-forward beers, but Schadenfreude is tailor-made for a warm summer night. It's a Dunkel Lager, meaning it's a dark lager flavored and colored with Munich malts. They tend to be a bit weightier than a lighter lager, but still all sorts of drinkable. Surly prides itself on complex beers, so the roasted caramel flavors are offset by aging the brew in Minnesota oak casks and making the traditionally malt-heavy beer a bit hoppier, adding a bracing bitter note to the mix. The combination works beautifully. The can is a nice touch as well, keeping the liquid inside safe from the summer sun. Plus, it's a bit more portable than a glass bottle, albeit a big surprise for anyone who grabs a can and expects to gulp it down like a Bud.
Dogfish Head Festina Peche – Dogfish Head is known for bizarre beers and this one, while delicious, is no exception. It's a Berliner Weissbier, which is traditionally made with lactic cultures, producing an oddly refreshing sour green apple-like flavor. The addition of peaches to the fermentation, however, gives the beer an intense peachy aroma perfect for summer picnics. The fruit flavor doesn't come through as clearly on the tongue, but it does add a touch of sweetness and makes adding a slice of orange or lemon somewhat redundant. It pours a cloudy gold and has an almost creamy texture that's cut nicely by the tart flavors and heavy carbonation, and at only 4.5 percent ABV it's definitely not hard to lose an afternoon in a four-pack or two. But it's not for everyone – the flavors that make it so unique also make it polarizing. But that's ok since it just means there's likely to be more for you.
Three Floyd's Apocalypse Cow – Three Floyd's in Munster, Indiana is another brewery with a reputation for producing tasty, albeit non-traditional, brews. Living in the middle of Indiana does strange things to people, after all. The company's double IPA, Apocalypse Cow, which will hit store shelves in the next few weeks, is no exception. It's hugely complex, but like most IPA's it's incredibly satisfying on a brutal summer day. Hops are here in spades, rearing their bitter heads on the nose and with every swallow, but the addition of lactose adds a creamy sweetness that brings the beer into near perfect balance. It's a somewhat frightening traffic cone orange in the glass, but that just adds to the intrigue for those who like a big bold hoppy beer. It's easy to drink, with a little citrus up front, but the hops are still the main event, as they should be.
Brooklyn Brewery Summer Ale – A traditional English “luncheon ale,” named for its ability to refresh without bogging people down early in the day thanks to its low alcohol content. It's a pale straw gold, with a nice bready and yeasty aroma and just a faint kick of hops. There's some citrus there too, lending all the cool sweetness a summer ale should have. And at only 5 percent ABV it goes down all too easy. That six-pack will disappear in a hurry, so keep it at the bottom of the cooler where your friends will have to dig for it.
Abita Wheat – About as straightforward as it gets, Abita Wheat is another wheat beer, but a lager instead of a traditional ale. It pours a luminous yellow gold, with a slight haze from the yeasts used. It's clean and crisp, with some slight lemon and malt flavors overlaying what is an incredibly drinkable, even gulpable, beer. It's everything anyone could ask for after moving a few hundred yards of mulch or pushing a mower over an acre or two and working up an honest sweat. Plus, Abita Brewing, located just a few miles away from New Orleans, is a great reminder that no matter how many the times the Gulf Coast gets beat up, the people there still know how to have a good time.