It’s a sight for sore summer eyes: giant metal buckets filled with ice, covering long-necked bottles of beer. But there is a difference between summer beers and summer brews.
Corona and Sol are summer beers, with a light and lemony finish, but you can find them and their ilk in the cooler any time of year. Summer brews on the other hand are specially crafted beverages whose shelf life is relegated to the steamy months before Oktoberfest.
Here’s a look at several summer brew options — some that are easy to find, others that need a little searching out. Keep in mind that most summer brews are off the shelves after Labor Day in preparation for the next seasonal specialties:
<ro>Harpoon Summer Beer
The Vermont brewery’s summer seasonal is a Kolsch-style ale, a German lager-like beer that’s gold in color and very light-bodied. Perhaps a little too light, in fact; the Harpoon Summer Beer goes down without any flavor beyond a slight citrus taste. Not that it isn’t refreshing, as the hopping level provides a crisp finish. It has a fresh aroma, and looks good in a frosty mug. Harpoon’s is one of those beers where multiple bottles won’t weigh one down — it’s light, crisp, if somewhat slight for those who seek a little flavor with their summer ale.
<ro>Smuttynose Summer Weizen Ale
Sometimes the label says it all. On the front of its Summer Weizen Ale, Smuttynose has a classic 1960s-style photo of a woman with big hair in a one-piece bathing suit, lying on a floating raft in a swimming pool and saying, “C’mon in, the water is great.” It conveys the sense of off-beat enjoyment that’s also found inside the bottle for this New Hampshire brewing company, as this summer wheat ale starts pleasantly and finishes ferociously. At first the Summer Weizen is a tangy summer brew; the aftertaste reveals intricate use of its wheat and barley malts, combining for a spicy, fruity finish that seems more in line with an autumn ale than a summer brew. An exciting choice for a seasonal beer.
<ro>Red Hook Sunrye
The Washington State brewery boasts that its golden-colored summer ale is “practically made for trips to the lake and open-flame cookouts.” That’s a better tag line than the one I came up with: “Maddeningly Inconsistent.” There’s no arguing that its velvet-like texture makes for a better drinking experience than many other summer ales — it manages to be light but not weightless. Yet there’s no flavorful “kick” to the taste or the aftertaste, making its fairly unremarkable. Even worse is the aroma; maybe it was a bad batch, but there was something faintly medicinal about the smell coming from my Sunrye.
<ro>Samuel Adams Summer Ale
One of the most popular and widely available summer brews, this Boston-based brewing company continues to make outstanding seasonal beers. Summer Ale is a lighter version of Sam Adams’s popular lager whose taste is fueled by an eclectic mix of different notes — everything from mangos and peaches to paradise, a rare pepper from Africa. The aftertaste is a little sharp, but there’s no denying its pleasures as a light summer brew.
<ro>Dominion Summer Wheat
Local brewer makes good: Ashburn’s own Old Dominion Brewery Company produces a solid summertime Weisen. The German-style wheat beer isn’t hazy like some of its class can be, and has a more classic taste and aroma for American palates. Not nearly as overpowering as something like the Smuttynose Weisen, it’s a wonderful choice for lounging around a backyard on a summer afternoon.
<ro>Otter Creek ‘Otter Summer Ale
The Vermont brewery has made in-roads into the D.C. area over the last few years, specifically through distribution by the Trader Joe’s food chain. The Summer Ale is a special release, though not too difficult to track down — it’s also worth the effort. Citrus notes carry this light-bodied ale, one which can be correctly labeled as “crisp.” As light as other summer brews, but one that manages not to sacrifice flavor for it.
One last note about Otter Creek and other summer brews: sometimes a slice of lemon or lime can turn an otherwise pedestrian beer into something much tastier.
Call it The Corona Theorem…