The typical "lawnmower" beers no longer suffice, and beer enthusiasts need a greater mix of options. In a time before the release of Oktoberfest beers, the market still reels with a glut of light summer beers. The weather can also be highly unpredictable. Some searingly hot summer days are inevitably still in store around the country, while others in the farther reaches tend to cool off. From producers around the world, there remain several choices that serve to satisfy every beer drinker's needs.
GREAT LAKES DORTMUNDER GOLD
In the German brewing city of Dortmund, the nature of the water supply allows local brewers to brew a hoppy beer with a lower malt profile. The dortmunder style, also known as the export style, is usually pale to golden in color, with a medium body balanced by full, pale malt flavor and medium hop bitterness.
The classic American version of the dortmunder style can be found at the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. On a recent tour of this brand new facility, the guide made it clear that the Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, a multiple award winner, is best consumed at warmer temperatures. The guide warned consumers away from the practice of grabbing a cold one from the fridge and pounding it down. In a great exposition of this warning, he offers two samples to visitors - one straight from the refrigerator and another that has been warming at room temperature for a few minutes. The beer from the fridge had a strong, bitter flavor foreign to the style - and the cold temperature masked any other flavors. A world of difference was made when the guide poured the warmer sample. Suddenly, the beer was transformed from a bitter, unpleasant flavor to the fantastically complex and delightfully malty version of this style.
VICTORY PRIMA PILS
Evolving from the humblest of roots, pilsner beer has grown to become the world's most consumed style of beer. That is to say, bastardized versions of the original pilsner styles are wildly popular in bars in nearly every beer market.
While most pilsner rip-offs tend to follow the Czech examples set by Pilsner Urquell and its progeny, very few brewers produce pilsner beers true to the German-style.
At the Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, PA, the brewmasters focused their training on traditional German lager styles. By far, the brewery's most successful foray into lager brewing is the classic Prima Pils. The beer pours with a thick, pure white head two fingers deep and a pale gold color. The first hint that sets this beer apart from a majority of American and Czech versions of the style is the hop aroma. The Prima Pils possesses an unmistakable hop aroma, very fresh, earthy and full of zing. This beer clearly is not your daddy's pilsner, but maybe your grand-pappy's pilsner. Finally, a true to style German pils, a very unusual offering for an American micro, and a great step towards reinvigorating this often abused style.
BROOKLYN BROOKLYNER WEISSE
True to style weiss beers are few and far between in America. Our brewers tend to offer American-style Wheat beers packaged as hefe-weizens, but without any of the important banana, clove or fruity characteristics. American beer marketers seem to think that a beer which is light in color and cloudy automatically qualifies as a hefe-weizen. And to the American consumer, it often does.
The most well-known and popular of the German wheat ales is certainly the hefe-weizen (the "w" is pronounced as a "v"). For hefe-weizens ("hefe" means "with yeast" and "weiss" is German for "white"), the fermentation yeast is included for bottle-conditioning and may leave the ale a bit cloudy or hazy. True Bavarian-style hefe-weizen beers use a proportion of at least 50 percent malted wheat in the mash to add a luminous protein haze to the finished product. They range from pale to orange in hue, have a light malt flavor highlighted by prominent wheat hints and very little hop bitterness. Perhaps the most notable feature of these styles is the signature clove and banana flavors that are present throughout the tasting process. The high carbonation rate of these beers also makes them ideal for quenching thirsts.
A true American version of the style is found in the Brooklyner Weisse. This representation of the style is unfiltered and full of fruit and clove esters. What makes this beer stand out from competitors is the balance of its strong flavor profile with its relative lightness in body. The beer pours with a slightly darker than usual color that creates confusion in the mind of the drinker. Will this be another overly-malty weiss? Will it lack sufficient weiss esters? Brooklyn's version is made with a traditional weizen yeast strain, and includes half malted wheat and half barley malt. This is a beautiful beer for summer, presented in a tall 20 ounce weiss glass, with a full-flavored, yet light impact on the palate.
MELBOURN BROS. CHERRY FRUIT BEER, ALL SAINTS BREWERY, STAMFORD, ENGLAND
The Melbourn Bros. line offers a distinctive sampling opportunity for those looking to try a vividly flavorful fruit beer or for those who claim to love cider, but hate beer. The line continues to push the boundaries of what the drinking public considers to be beer, while offering an approachable, enjoyable product.
In addition to predecessor Apricot and Strawberry offerings, the All Saints Brewery now offers the Melbourn Bros. Cherry beer. The beer is brewed with malted barley, wheat, and fresh cherries and their juice. The brewery recommends the beer as an aperitif and as a complement to mussels and flavorful cheeses.
Unlike most other breweries, including every other brewery in England, All Saints relies on spontaneous fermentation, or the use of natural, wild yeasts to ferment its beers. Similar to the lambic brewing method found outside of Brussels, Belgium, this English twist provides the line with an increased acidity level and a touch of funkiness in the flavor profile. The brewery uses louvred panels in the coolship room to allow wild yeasts to enter the brewery building. As increased summer temperatures cause too great a boost in the level of the wild yeasts, the brewery limits most of its production to the cooler, winter months.
The worth stands overnight in the coolship room, during which time the wild yeasts wonderfully enter, propagate in the beer and initiate fermentation. The wort is then pumped into cedar-based fermentation vessels. The beer then matures for one year to develop its intriguing character.
The beer pours with a striking deep rouge color and a sizable creamy pink head. The aroma is a pleasant mix of sweet and tart notes, with some acidic tartness rounding it out. Some light, sweet cherry notes, almost cough drop like, present alongside some berry skin aroma. The first sip is more tart than expected, with a very light carbonation bite early on to cleanse the palate. A dull sweetness pervades the brew, with simple cherry notes, some funky and earthy hints from the yeast, all ending with a mildly acidic, somewhat mouth-puckering finish. Overall, the beer is less acidic and carbonated than the comparable New Glarus Belgian Red, but more full bodied. Its classification as a beer will surprise many who may be more inclined to view it as a cherry champagne cocktail.
Despite its avowed flavor, the Melbourn Bros. line has its critics. The inevitable beer snob sniffs that it does not taste like a lambic - but what do they really expect? Few things can outside of the Senne Valley. Moreover, the brewers do not claim the beer to be a lambic, only a product of the spontaneous fermentation method. Similarly, some grumble that the beers are made not only with real fruit, but also with the use of fruit juice. This kind of strikes me like the senseless debates over contract brewing versus brick and mortar operations, or production under the German Purity Law versus that of experimentation with adjuncts.
What matters in the end is: is the beer any good? While part of me is sad to fawn over such a sweet brew, I have to say I'm a sucker for the sometimes cloyingly sweet Melbourn Bros. beers. While the Cherry is a nice addition to the line, and is certainly a welcomed addition to the refrigerators of fruit beer lovers, it pales next to the beauty of the Apricot, a beer of greater balance and flavor.
CAPITAL WEIZEN DOPPELBOCK
Capital has always been one of my favorite American producers. There is something impressive about a brewery that dedicates itself to making true to style, high-quality lagers, in an overwhelming competitive sea of ale producers. And it has succeeded at it! While the brewery does produce an ale or two, it primarily focuses on the traditional lager styles. This is Wisconsin of course!
Only one description truly does this beer justice: it is like rich, delectable banana bread, in liquid form. Flat head, unassuming off-orange color, slightly hazy, it gives no warning of what is to come. The nose is initially a bit confusing, with a slight biscuit malt aroma, mixed with slight alcohol hints, followed by the characteristic weiss notes of cloves, bananas and wheat, all with some tart, sour notes. The flavor is slightly wheaty and fruity at first. The Weizen Doppelbock offers a tremendously thick mouthfeel for a summer beer. Included in this unusual style is a great mix of flavors, ending with such strong malt and alcohol notes that you could have thought it pure doppelbock. A strange tartness does pervade throughout the beer, and sometimes acts as a distraction to the malt warmness.
STONE IMPERIAL STOUT
Perhaps the least likely summer seasonal release in America, this imperial stout makes sense coming from Stone Brewing. An eclectic brewery with a penchant for off-beat timing and marketing, Stone offers this beer with the following advice: "What better than a warm time of year to come out with a brew that tastes great as it warms up?"
But imperial stout in the summer? Actually, it works quite well. Savvy is the beer drinker who learns the joys of sampling higher gravity brews on warm summer evenings.
This beer pours with a thick, yet quickly dissipating tan head. It is glassy black in color, perhaps one of the darkest brews I have seen. The aroma is of strong chocolate malt mixed with mild alcohol notes and figgish, sweet fruit hints. The flavor is of toasted wafers, well-balanced between malt, alcohol and hops. A single Stone Imperial Stout can be enjoyed over several hours, which in itself is entirely impressive. Flavor changes are common and intriguing throughout the warming process. Great as a nightcap porch beer on a warm summer evening.
It is with an extremely heavy heart that I report that one of late fall's greatest beers is no more. Many knew this beer's future was in doubt, but we never really thought we'd lose our companion of so many years.
Through a recent email, it was confirmed that the best example of the relatively obscure Baltic porter style no longer exists. The Okocim Brewery recently decided to discontinue its quietly acclaimed Okocim Porter.
The oft-neglected Baltic style is not even popular enough to constitute a sub-style of the porter group under the Association of Brewers' style guidelines. This style is a near relative of the imperial stout style. These deep, rich porters, popular in Poland, Finland and Russia, are full in flavor with a fortifying alcohol content. In a nod to hybrid style beers, many Baltic porters are brewed with lager yeasts.
In every style of beer, there is usually one or two beers that serve to define the category. For the Baltic porter style, the powerful 8.1 percent abv Okocim Porter stuns with its massive malt aroma and flavor. The Okocim pours with a deep, dark brown color, a remarkable tan head, and offers a huge, rich malt nose, with some coffee hints. This beer lets you know upfront that it isn't messing around. It reaches its full potential after warming at room temperature for a few minutes, and has a layered, almost dry finish. On my most recent taste, the bottle had been aged for more than a year and help up very well.
Though not widely available in its time, ethnic package stores in the Chicago area always possessed ample supplies of this fulfilling brew. And there is good reason for such a distribution point: Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, Poland.
So how did such a beautiful beer meets its demise? According to a source at Stawski Distributing, Okocim's American importer, production costs coupled with the parent company's (Carlsberg acquired a greater share of the company in December 2002) desire to focus on higher selling products brought this classic to its deathbed.
"I understand people, breweries, want to make beer that sells," says the representative. "But Okocim Porter is not Miller, or Zywiec for that matter. It appeals to a select few, it's a treat, it's something special, it's not the next Corona."
While the Okocim Porter may never have been a big seller, it is still painful to see the departure of a classic example of a style. Imagine, beer drinkers, the loss of other defining beers, such as Anchor Steam, Guinness Stout or Pilsner Urquell.
The people at Stawski, and fans around the US, are devastated by the news. "I myself wanted to start a petition somehow to let the brewery know that the people want it and the category of Baltic Porters needs it around to secure the standard of what a Baltic porter should be," says the representative.
If there is any silver lining, it is that Stawski's distributors stocked up on Okocim in the last six months before the importer ran out of the beer. So bottles of the classic are still available in package stores in select markets.
While the news has been slow to spread, it seems certain that this classic representation of an obscure style is not likely to return, though some still have their hopes. The Stawski representative put it best: "Keep making it in the name of good beer!"
UPDATE 2005: Okocim recently begun brewing the porter again and the product is available in limited runs across America.