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What makes for a great summertime beer?

Around Memorial Day, beer aisles across the country undergo a seasonal metamorphosis, as spring lagers make way for special summer brews. With the dog days of summer upon us, Epicurious' Christopher Matthews examines the best summertime ales.
/ Source: Epicurious

Starting around Memorial Day, beer aisles in supermarkets across the country undergo a seasonal metamorphosis — the invasion of the special summer brews!

Courtesy of the micro- and craft-beer revolution of recent years, American breweries, from nationally distributed names like Sam Adams to local crafters like Brooklyn Brewery, jump into the annual summer release fray.

For beer lovers, this expanding seasonal choice is a nice problem to have. But it begs some questions: What makes for a great summer brew? What traditions are behind these seasonals? What foods work best with these beers?

Ideally, great summer beers should be crisp, refreshing, and food-friendly, with light to medium body and moderate alcohol, yet still packed with aroma and flavor. Various beer types qualify, but the best summer ales tend to hail from Germany and Belgium, two centers of brewing excellence. For quality summer quaffing, no style outshines the wheat-based brews from these two beer-loving countries.

Summer wheat
For practical reasons, most beers are made with at least some malted barley. With a hard husk and relative lack of glutens, barley performs poorly in the bakery, but is ideal for malting and beer brewing. Wheat is the exact opposite: The grain has no encasement and is rich in glutens and other proteins useful in breadmaking, but it tends to gum up the brewing process. In fact, it's almost impossible to make beer solely from wheat.

In the Middle Ages, when all beer production was "micro," farmers and brewers rarely had the luxury of choosing grains, they simply employed what was available. In southern Germany and present-day Belgium, wheat was part of the mix. Through trial and error, it was discovered that including a proportion of wheat in the mash leads to a highly desirable beverage, a lighter-bodied beer with refreshing, thirst-quenching acidity. Thus, a great beer style for the hot weather evolved.

Because of the paler color and yeasty haze of these ales (yes, they are technically ales, made with top-fermenting yeast), especially compared with the darker beers, people called them "white" beers, witbier, or bière blanche in Belgium, and weissbier in Germany.

Keep your wit
A true holdover from the spice trade era (15th and 16th centuries), the Belgian witbier is brewed from malted barley and raw wheat, and spiced (mostly) with coriander and Curaçao bitter orange peel. Hops come into play nowadays, but subtly. A bright, refreshing style that almost died out after WWII, this hazy, pale yellow-gold beer has made a big comeback in its homeland and has a bevy of sincere imitators in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even Coors Brewing Company puts out a Belgian-style white under the Blue Moon label. An excellent Belgian prototype widely available is Hoegaarden.

A big fan of the summer Belgian witbier is Brooklyn Brewery's brewmaster Garret Oliver, author of the seminal "Brewmaster's Table." "With its low bitterness, bright fruitiness, and subtle spice, not to mention the thirst-quenching acidity and lighter body, this is my favorite beer overall for the summer months, especially at mealtime," he says. It's a brilliant match for fresh greens dressed in a vinaigrette, as well as light seafood, such as shrimp or sole, even sushi. It's also his preferred beverage for summer brunch: The beer's hint of orange zest provides a delicious counterpoint to egg dishes, while the zippy carbonation and acidity easily stand up to bacon, sausages, and croque monsieur, the famous French grilled Swiss cheese and ham sandwich.

Weizen up
Go to any outdoor café or Biergarten in Bavaria during the warm weather, and you'll find scores of tall, slender glasses used solely for Weissbier on the picnic-style tables, bearing insignias from breweries like Schneider, Franziskaner, and Weihenstephaner. While there are various styles of Weiss or Weizen (wheat), including the oxymoronic Dunkelweiss (literally "dark white"), the Hefeweizen (yeast-wheat) is the choice for the summer.

As the name indicates, this bottle-conditioned beer contains unfiltered yeast sediment —  accounting for the cloudy appearance — and a full flavor. Most Hefes are brewed with at least 50 percent malted wheat and are delicately hopped with aromatic, citric strains. Unlike their Belgian colleagues, German brewers still observe the German beer purity law of 1516. The law decrees that spices and other flavorings (besides hops) are verboten in the brewing process. Yet the orangeish, thick-headed Hefes are often chock-full of amazing fruity and spicy elements, ranging from fresh apples, banana, and Juicy Fruit gum to cloves and nutmeg. The responsible agent: ancient strains of yeast, enhancing the naturally fruity arc of the wheat.

These extremely restorative beers are arguably best on a hot day after a workout. They are fantastic food companions too, with slightly more heft than the Belgian witbier. Fruity, spicy, and geyserlike in carbonation, Hefes are second to none with spicy ethnic foods, especially Mexican, Chinese, and Indian, which have their share of fats and oils to cut through.

Drinking a dialect
Moving away from high-wheat content, but staying in the top-fermenting ale family, a personal favorite is Kölsch, a fresh, light-bodied, and slightly malty golden ale indigenous to Cologne, Germany, as well as a protected appellation. Essentially, it's an ale that looks and drinks like a light, flavorful (bottom-fermenting) lager.

As a graduate student, I spent six weeks one summer in this quirky city on the Rhine, where the local dialect has the same name as the beer. I found out firsthand how the quantities consumed of this beer — which is traditionally served in small 0.2-liter cylindrical glasses — can add up quickly. Fortunately, Kölsch's freshness and relatively low alcohol content lets you off easy the next morning.

Because it's light, balanced, and full-flavored, Kölsch works across the entire summer menu, whether it's salads and light seafood or the pork dishes so beloved in Cologne. Though it is seldom found outside its native confines, I have run across two excellent imports, Reissdorf and Gaffel. Both are on tap in Manhattan at the hip, German-themed Zum Schneider and Loreley. Despite Kölsch's relative obscurity, a growing number of American breweries, such as Saranac, Harpoon (under its "Summer Beer" label), and Spoetzl (of Shiner, Texas, fame), have taken on the style for summer releases.

'Tis the saison
Before refrigeration was invented in the 19th century, all beer brewing was strictly seasonal, possible only after the fall grain harvest and up through March. Warmer weather made brewing impractical; there were too many wild yeast strains in the air and no more ice for cool storage. The challenge was to brew a reasonably refreshing beer that could last through the entire summer and harvest period without spoiling. In Belgium, the farmhouse solution became the appropriately named Saison ("season"). Using hard water, heavy hopping, and high-mashing temperatures, this very dry, crisp, and highly carbonated style has a significant alcohol content (up to 6.5 percent) for a summer beer, which helped to preserve it back when.

Earthy, often fruity, sometimes spiced, and sporting a dense head, this endangered style is served in Champagne-style bottles with cork closures, a festive sight on ice at a picnic. Dupont's Saison is available in the United States. Omergang, a Belgian-inspired craft brewer based in Cooperstown, New York, also makes a highly rated domestic Saison under its Hennepin label.

A related style for similar historical reasons (delivering beer intact after a long, hot voyage at sea to thirsty British troops in Colonial India), but far more ubiquitous in today's market, is the popular India Pale Ale, or IPA. Many American IPAs go overboard on the hops, but when in balance, like Sierra Nevada's excellent, herbaceous version, they are the perfect foil for Indian cuisine. In both instances, says Brooklyn's Oliver, the IPAs and Saisons have, through their dry hoppiness, an uncanny affinity with the cilantro and chilies present in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Just watch the higher alcohol!

Ein pils, bitte
From the bottom-fermenting lager side of the aisle, another summer classic is pilsner, simply the world's most popular beer style. In many cases, however, it's also the most watered down and insipid. To quote Oliver: "Pilsner was invented in Czech Bohemia, perfected in Germany, and turned into mass-market fizz in America."

When made in the true German style — solely from barley malt, highly hopped, and stored cool for at least two months before release (in German, "lager" refers to "storage") — pilsner is a crisp, dry golden lager with a slightly floral, resinous aroma, a bitter (but appetizing) first bite, and a smooth, bready finish. In Germany, any Kneipe (pub) worth its salt has hand-drawn Pilsner on tap. This should take exactly seven minutes to pour (aficionados will often time it), leading to a lovely, thick head capable of supporting a penny on top. And in the summer, thirsty Germans, knowing this time sequence, will often order two Pilsner at once!

More round and less complex in flavor than most ales, authentic pilsner is a straightforward delight in the hot weather and companionable with most foods, spicy dishes in particular. If you're serving mixed appetizers, pilsner is a perfect choice, rivaling Champagne in versatility. And with North German–style pilsners, like Jever and Bitburger, the extra bitterness is a perfect foil for oysters and shellfish.

While German and Czech pilsners are readily available in America, there are some excellent homegrown types to check out as well, including Stoudt's Pils, Brooklyn Pilsner (Oliver imports all his ingredients from Germany to ensure an authentic taste), and Great Lakes Brewing Company's Barrel Select Pils.

Whatever summer style you prefer, pay a little more and exploit our expanding beer universe by stocking up on some domestic micro versions, or an imported original, for that next outdoor soirée. After all, summer is prime suds season.

On tap this summer

  • Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier: A true classic. Pale orange, with notes of clove spice, banana, light caramel, and nutmeg. Incredibly lively, like tasty scrubbing bubbles. Perfect for spicy fare.
  • Hoegaarden Witbier: Pale, hazy yellow, this witbier actually comes close to "white" (the color). Citrusy, light-bodied, and zesty, with some coriander spice and hints of orange peel. Totally refreshing and better than a mimosa at brunch.
  • Saison Dupont: Has a lovely, dense head and earthy, herbal aromas. Pale yellow-orange and full-bodied, with a snappy bitter, dry finish. Highly drinkable. Try it with Thai food.
  • Gaffel Kölsch: Clear, dark gold color, with a fresh, malty nose. Pleasantly bitter and bready. A balanced, light, and flavorful summer quaffer.
  • Jever Pilsener: A clear, golden North German Pilsner with palate-rocking hop bitterness flowing into a smooth, clean malt finish. An all-purpose brew that's perfect for a clambake.
  • Molson Canadian Lager: My "lawnmower" beer. Has surprising body and taste for a macrobrew, a little sweetness, and a lively exit.

Based in New York City, Christopher Matthews is a wine and spirits writer.