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.