Put down that lawnmower beer; you are entering the world of sophisticated and refreshing summer brews - in a range of styles from around the globe.
Cold beer and hot summer days seem as though they were made for each other, and many of us wouldn't think of taking on the dog days of July and August without a fridge full of chilled brew.
But as obvious as the partnership between beer and summer is, it is also paradoxical. Because as more and more beer-friendly situations present themselves—baseball games, poolside parties, barbecues, lazing at the beach—our concern about what we drink seems to diminish proportionally. Beer drinkers who wouldn't be caught dead with a mass-market lager in their house over the winter suddenly become much more forgiving of the sins of blandness. "Oh, it doesn't matter what it is," they muse languidly. "It's just lawnmower beer."
Lawnmower beer. It is one of the most unfortunate phrases in the modern beer lexicon, invoked to rationalize the existence of any vapid brew which, lacking any obvious merits as a beer, is afforded credibility as a hot-weather thirst-quencher. It doesn't really taste all that great, the reasoning goes, but if you chill it down to ice-cold and drink it from the can or bottle, it will wet your whistle. To my mind such skewed logic is akin to saying that a jug of white Zinfandel makes for a fine "chugging wine," and meaning it in a positive sense.
What makes the lawnmower beer's resilience all the more lamentable is the corollary assumption that a beer must be low in both flavor and temperature in order for it to be a worthy refresher. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly one can soothe a parched throat with a cool liquid of neutral taste, such as water or beer so cold that its flavor is almost totally hidden. Better, however, might be a crisp, dry-flavored drink—lemonade, unsweetened iced tea, or Perrier with lime. Within this second group of refreshers you will also find one of the most purely thirst-quenching styles of beer in the world, the continental pilsner.
Frequently maligned by beer lovers who rightly presume it to be the lawnmower beer of Europe, the continental style of pilsner is nevertheless several steps in flavor above the North American version, and a very fine brew for a hot day. Served cold, but not freezing, the medium body, gentle bitterness, and dry flavor profile of beers such as Holsten Premium from Germany and the Czech Republic's Radegast are wonderful companions to thirst. Particularly quenching is Stella Artois, known simply as Stella, which is the international flagship brand of the Belgian megabrewery, Interbrew.
Of greater interest
While full of flavor and aroma compared with their domestic equivalents, most continental pilsners are still relatively simple lagers that run the risk of boring more discriminating drinkers after one or two beers. Consider that a signal that it's time to switch to a more interesting but no less refreshing brew, such as a German wheat beer.
Known variously as weissbier (white beer), weizen (wheat beer) and hefeweizen (wheat beer with yeast), the German wheat is a light, spicy style of beer brewed from 50 percent or more malted wheat (the rest of the grain being normal malted barley) and fermented with yeast from a specific family of top-fermenting strains. Even more than the wheat content—there are several other styles of wheat beer brewed around the world—it is that particular type of yeast that makes the German wheat beer unique, bestowing upon it as it does the weissbier's typical clove and banana aromas and flavors.
Although less purely refreshing than other styles of beer, the weissbier is nonetheless
a superbly satisfying summer brew. In Munich's famed food market, the open-air Viktualien Markt, city residents gather in the sunshine to enjoy the classic Bavarian breakfast of weissbier and weisswurst, the latter a flavorful sausage made from seasoned veal. Although the ritual is performed year-round, at no time is it more compelling than on a warm summer's morn.
Ironically, the beer considered to be the classic German weissbier, Schneider Weisse, is one of the darkest examples of the style. (Dark German wheats are normally grouped separately under the dunkelweizen name and are earthier and more roasted in flavor; they are better suited to grilled meats and heavier fare.) Faintly peppery in aroma, the Schneider is burnished copper in color and offers complex spice and hints of fruit in a light but rewarding flavor. Other lighter-hued wheats from Germany include the similarly spicy Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse from Spaten, the fruitier Hacker-Pschorr Weisse, and the lightly tart Ayinger Brau Weisse, while fine North American examples include the citrusy weissbier from Tabernash Brewing of Denver and the more bubble-gum-styled DeGroen's Weizen from Baltimore Brewing.
Another refreshing summer wheat beer is the Belgian variety, variously known as bière blanche, wit or white beer. Employing similar proportions of wheat and barley as the German weissbiers, the brewer of a Belgian white beer uses unmalted rather than malted wheat, a more conventional ale yeast for fermentation, and then spices the brew with coriander and dried orange peel. The result is a very pale, spicy-fruity brew that is surprisingly light on the palate.
Despite its current popularity, the Belgian white might have been consigned to brewing history but for the revivalist work of one man, Pierre Celis. As a young brewer in 1966, Celis spearheaded the resurrection of the style with the introduction of Hoegaarden White, named for the northern Belgian town where his De Kluis brewery was located. Soon after, many of the country's brewers followed his lead. Although both the brand and the brewery are now owned by Interbrew, Hoegaarden remains a very fine example of Belgian white beer, well suited to enjoying with a backyard brunch or with quintessential Belgian foods like steamed mussels or grilled whitefish. Since selling to Interbrew, Celis has gone on to found another brewery, this in Austin, Texas, and brew another white beer, the orangey Celis White. But Celis was not the first to brew a bière blanche in North America. That honor goes to Quebec-based Unibroue, with its dry, mildly spicy and very refreshing Blanche de Chambly, named after the town where Unibroue makes its beers.
All of the beer styles mentioned thus far have been of fairly low alcohol content, roughly 4.5 percent to 5 percent by volume, and it is true that the vast majority of the most refreshing summer brews are made at that strength or lower. But there also exist a handful of more potent beers which, even for all of their strength, are still curiously refreshing. And they come from such diverse nations as Belgium, Jamaica and Estonia.
Given the huge diversity of strong beer styles native to Belgium, it is no surprise that several of them stray into the realm of strong, flavorful and quenching. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is the saison, a deceptively strong (5.5 percent to 7.5 percent alcohol) yet utterly quenching brew typified by the dry, lightly peppery Saison Dupont. Another strangely revitalizing strong ale is Duvel, a classic beer that defines the Belgian class of strong golden ale. A fairly powerful beer at 8.5 percent alcohol, Duvel has a crisp pear-like aroma and a lively, spicy character vaguely reminiscent of a Vinho Verde, the combination of which makes it dangerously gulpable. No wonder that its name was reportedly coined when an early taster took a sip and exclaimed that it was "a devil of a beer."
Finally, recognizing that not all summer beers need be enjoyed under the blazing sun, it is worth noting a pair of related styles that are at their best as dusk turns to night and the call is sounded for an after-dinner drink, perhaps to be sipped alongside a good cigar. This is when the sweet stouts of the Caribbean and the porters of Eastern Europe hit their stride.
Descended from the richer, more full-bodied Imperial stouts shipped from England to the Court of the Russian Czar more than a century ago, most of today's sweet stouts and porters are bottom-fermented beers, members of the lager class. This gives them a crispness that moderates their impressive sweetness and strength, and makes them a perfect accompaniment to a summer night.
Served with a light to moderate chill, Jamaica's Dragon Stout is divinely suited to a sultry night and a spicy Dominican cigar, while the slightly more complex Saku Porter from Estonia is better partnered with a more robust Cuban or Nicaraguan Churchill. Even on their own, however, these beers are wonderful complements to a July or August evening and offer definitive proof that it pays to be picky about the beer you drink. Even in the summer.
Stephen Beaumont is an internationally recognized beer authority and the author of four books on brew, including the forthcoming Premium Beer Drinker's Guide. His monthly online magazine, Stephen Beaumont's World of Beer, can be accessed at www.worldofbeer.com.