I dream of a never ending summer… Ale: Your guide to brews by the beach

As the last few weeks of spring begin to wind down, the sights and sounds of summer can already be pictured. The long hot days, the sound of waves crashing on the beach, the smell of campfires in the air, and the taste of a refreshing summer ale. With just a month left in spring, breweries are already rolling out their tasty summer seasonals, from crisp pale ales to fruity summer shandies. So while you’re planning your trips to the beach, here’s what you have to quench your thirst this season.

As any seasoned beer drinker knows, the summer time opens up the palette to crisper lighter ales than the dark and heavy porters and stouts favored in the winter. For the warm weather, beers such as pale ales, shandies, blondes, and Indian pale ales are as abundant as the citrus they’re brewed with.  The pale ale and IPA are not exclusively summer beers and are joined year-round. However, the light and crisp flavors of these lighter ales are a very popular way to beat the heat compared to heavier beers such as stouts. Brewers know this so they change things up for the summer to make the ales as light, crisp, and citrusy as possible. This trend first appeared across the pond in England during the mid ’90s.

As Beer Magazine reports, a heat wave in ’95 ruined the traditional ales English brewers were letting ferment. The heat caused the beer to cook in its tanks before it finished fermenting. Adding to the problem, beer is traditionally served at or just below room temperature to bring out the full body of flavors. This is why many cheaper beers are marketed to be served cold, some “as cold as the rocky mountains”, because you can’t truly taste the poor ingredients (sorry Coors). With the heat wave, no one wanted a room temperature beer. Chilled ales and lagers gained popularity and brewers took note.

For this summer’s ale selection, I took a taste of New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger IPA. It’s an aggressive American IPA with notes of citrus behind a strong hop flavor. In fact, this IPA was brewed with six different types of hops to give it that crisp and clean punch of refreshing bitterness. The variety of hops are what gives it that citrus hint at the back. American IPAs are perfect for summer because they offer a soulful herb characteristic that English IPAs lack. Current English IPAs are maltier and darker than their fruitier American cousins. This particular IPA is seven percent alcohol by volume, so it’s better to sip and relax with this one.  It is available year-round due to its popularity. However, it is best enjoyed during the warmer months. Otherwise just sip and think back to the summer.

For my next taste test I took a sip on the sweeter side of summer with Blue Moon’s Summer Honey Wheat Ale. As the name suggests it is a pale ale made with white wheat, honey, and orange peel. This is a drastic change from the Voodoo Ranger as the Honey Wheat is far sweeter. It has a pale golden color and the honey is instantly noticeable within the first sip. This beer is a limited release, only available in late spring to early summer.

This beer is 5.2 percent ABV, perfect for casual drinking at the beach or an all-day barbecue.  Blue Moon actually introduced this beer as a blonde ale in the late ’90s but brought it back as a wheat ale in 2006.  Blonde and wheat ales are pretty similar in color and aroma, but the key difference is in the grain. Wheat ales produce a similar light color as blondes but the beer is cloudier because you can see the grain. You also get a doughier, more bread like taste with wheat, often compared to drinking a sweet biscuit. This makes it a perfect partner for sweet barbecue cookouts.

On the next tasting I continued with ales but decided to compare it to another summer time favorite, shandies. Shandies are popular in Europe and only came to the states within the last decade. They originated in Bavaria in 1922 as cyclists found them to be refreshing, according to NBC. Shandies, while not exactly a beer nor a cocktail, contain a mix of beer and fruit juice or lemonade. This is an interesting spin on bringing fruit flavors to beer. For this reason I compared Sam Adams Porch Rocker (a lemon brewed beer) with Leinenkugel Summer Shandy (a German wheat beer with lemonade).

Sam Adams Porch Rocker an American take on the classic German helles lager. Helles means “bright” in german and started in Munich in the 1800s, according to BeerAdvocate. German brewers were competing with Czech brewers for customers so they created a pale lager balanced between spicy hops and a rich malt flavor. Porch Rocker is available May to August and is 4.5 percent ABV. Rather than a bitter hop flavor, you are greeted with a tart lemon smack to the tongue. As I sipped this summer seasonal I noticed it got better as it reached below room temp. At that point the maltiness came through and the lemon took a comfortable backseat. 

Although the Porch Rocker may be better at room temperature, the Leinenkugel shandy was much more refreshing ice cold. However, don’t go ahead and stick this in the backk of the fridge as it is prone to forming ice. I had my mini fridge on the coldest setting and opened up a shandy slush. My theory is the lemonade in the shandy froze while the beer did not, creating the slushy texture. Once it had warmed up enough it proved to be a crisp and sweet drink. The beer left me unimpressed and tasted like a standard wheat lager, but combined with lemonade it was a good experience. Leinenkugel’s shandy is available from March to August and is 4.2 percent ABV, just shy of the Porch Rocker’s ABV. Between the two I lean towards Leinenkugel.

 

Intrigued by shandies I decided to go ahead and do another comparison between a fruit brewed beer and a shandy. I compared Shock Top’s Ruby Fresh ale to The Traveler’s Grapefruit shandy. I don’t particularly enjoy grapefruit on its own and neither beer changed my mind but both were mildly enjoyable.

The Ruby Fresh is a Belgian ale brewed with grapefruit and available from early spring to early summer. It has an ABV of 5.2 percent and a hazy gold color. Once opened you can immediately smell the grapefruit in the beer. It is heavier than other citrus beers but surprisingly sweet. The grapefruit brings a hidden bitterness, which combined with the sweet flavors brings memories of citrus candy. There is very little note of hops or malt so if you want a beer that doesn’t taste like beer then this is for you.

The Traveler’s grapefruit shandy is a wheat beer mixed with grapefruit juice. It is brewed year-round but is favored in the summer. It has an ABV of 4.4 percent, far below the Ruby Fresh. It is very tart and light with little traces of beer and malt. It closely resembles a grapefruit soda but with the wheat flavored malt of a beer in the after taste. When poured you can see the wheat in its opaque yellow color. I found the tart taste of straight grapefruit juice to be too overwhelming, leading me to prefer the Ruby Fresh between the two.

Overall, I have to fall back to the Voodoo Ranger for my personal favorite, but that’s just me being a hops guy. If you’re new to summer ales and want something sweet, refreshing, and ice cold I recommend the Blue MoonHoney Wheat. Of all the summer drinks this one worked best for being cold, refreshing, and tasteful. It was sweet like a summer drink but owned up to being a beer at its core. But if you’re not a beer person like me, I recommend the Leinenkugel Summer Shandy or trying your hand at making your own shandy at home. All you need is lemonade and a light lager of your choice and the proportions are up to you.

So with summer on the way and beer on the brain you are all set to find your refreshing brew this season. From shandies to pale ales you have quite the selection to choose from. Whatever you find fits your palette just sit back, relax, and enjoy the sunshine.

 

Beer for Beginners

Brewing and drinking beer are as American as Apple Pie. In fact, in 1614 the first non-native American was born… in a brewery. Jean Vigne of New Amsterdam was born in Block & Christiansen’s brew house and grew up to be the first brew master in America. At the time, colonists brewed ale mostly using corn. Since then, beer has come a very long way. Nowadays American consumers have a wide variety of delicious brews to choose from. There are fifteen families of beer to choose from, each with anywhere from two to thirteen subcategories, for a total of 79 categories recognized by the Brewers Association. For many people, beer is both a science and an art form, but for brewers it is a way of life. Traversing this field may seem a daunting task to the average drinker, but do not fret dear friend. You have made the first step to becoming a person with a sophisticated palette for beer. Now sit back, relax, have a drink, and let me educate you in the ways of American beer.

 

To begin we must go way back to the beginnings of beer. The word Beer comes from the old English word “ber”, which comes from the German word “bior”, both of which refer to a drink made from malted grains such as corn or barley, and flavored with hops. The key ingredient here that gives beer it’s distinct bitter flavor is hops. If only barley, yeast, and water are mixed, an overly sweet drink will be made. Hops add an aromatic and fruity flavor to the beer that also increases its bitterness and often, its alcohol content. This brings us to the Pale Ale. About 300 years ago in England the rising industrial revolution allowed brewers to better control the temperatures of the malt. This allowed them to produce a lighter malt and thus a paler ale. The American version of this libation is even lighter and often has a stronger citrus flavor due to the sulfur-like characteristics of American Hops. As brewers experimented by adding more and more hops, the world saw the development of the Indian Pale Ale.

 

The first IPA was made by a London Brewer named Hodgson in the 1780s. During the age of imperialism and the British Raj (the period of history where the British Empire ruled over India) soldiers abroad needed a brew to quench their thirsts after a hard day of ruling. Unfortunately, it was too hot to brew beer in India as the natural heat would ruin the fermenting process. Hodgson’s solution was an extra hoppy beer designed to ferment like a fine wine while it was shipped to thirsty soldiers overseas. The final product was a delicious beer with a higher alcohol content than most beers. The yeast in the beers had a much longer time to break down the sugars into alcohol than normally. For the following centuries however, the world would not see much change in the IPA until the rise of the microbreweries.

 

In 1961, there were only 230 breweries operating in the U.S., starkly down from 756 in 1934. Due to the enormous cost of the WWII, many breweries were forced to shut down and those that remained had to give fifteen percent of their beer to the government for war effort. It wasn’t until 1995 that breweries were making a comeback, with 500 in operation and three to four opening up each week. By 1996 there were 1,102 breweries and 333 microbreweries, with the number of breweries reaching nearly 1,500 by 2001. As more and more Americans got into brewing, they experimented with different flavors to each stand out from the crowd. One of the most famous of these is a local of Vermont, The Alchemist. The Alchemist opened as a small brewpub in 2003 but opened their first canning line in 2011 for their most famous beer, and arguably the best in the world, Heady Topper. Heady Topper is a double IPA with a robust and aggressive hop flavor. Most IPAs use so many hops that the bitterness is too much for the average drinker. If bitterness isn’t your thing, then you may want to try a porter.

 

As most Ales are golden in color and fruity in aroma, Porters are very dark in color and have little to no hop flavor. Porters have an overall low level of sweetness but often taste of caramel or dark chocolate. The only characteristic they share with IPAs is a high alcohol content, often ranging from seven to twelve percent alcohol by volume for both. One of the most top rated porters in the world is Morning Wood by Funky Budha Brewery in Florida. The beer is aged in bourbon barrels for months and comes out with a smoky flavor of syrup, coffee, and bacon. Many porters are generally flavored with chocolate or other sweet ingredients. Porters are often confused with stouts, which are similar in taste and color. However, the key difference is that stouts are brewed with roasted barley while porters are brewed with malted barley. This results in a more distinct roasted coffee flavor in stouts. Another beer with a low hoppy flavor is the American Lager.

 

Much like Ales, American Lagers are straw to gold colored. However, what makes the lager unique is the use of corn, rise, or other high sugary grains. Lagers may have the color of an ale and the low hopped levels of a stout or porter but are a whole new breed. They are often light and crisp with a lot of carbonation. You’ve probably had many lagers and just not known it. Common American lagers include Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Budweiser. Grains like corn and rice are very cheap and plentiful. No wonder you see so many thirty can packs of lagers yet none of IPAs or stouts at the grocery store.

 

Well that covers the basics, and now you’re ready to go out and explore the wonderful world of beer. Just remember to do so responsibly. Exploring the amazingly wide variety of flavors beer has can be an enjoyable experience, but so can brewing to. Just as microbreweries have made a rise, home brewing has picked up some momentum as well. Currently there are many companies that sell home brewing kits. So if you decide to make beer your new hobby, who knows, maybe you could make the next heady topper.