In the chillingly cold months of winter, frostbitten beer drinkers seek to sooth their worn-down bodies and raise their collective spirits with their beer of choice. With the brightening of days and spirits, the new dance of summer's sweet sunshine requires the selection of new beverages.
In the warmer months of the summer season, beer drinkers look for a range of new qualities in their brews. "Peoples' flavor profiles always change with the weather," says Jerry Prial, President and General Manager of Redhook's Portsmouth brewery. "The colder it gets, the more they want the dark, more robust ales. When the weather gets better, they want something lighter and crisper, lower in malt and spice flavors." Charlie Storey, Senior Vice President and Brand Manager for the Harpoon Brewery, agrees there is a definite shift in the collective beer drinking palate during the summer. "It is conventional wisdom, backed up by consumer behavior, that in colder months people tend towards heavier and darker beers, while in warmer months people want a beer that is lighter in body and color."
While people may prefer lighter beers during the warmer months, it is not the only thing that supports the seasonal market. "It is not a definitive pattern by any means," according to Storey. "People like variety, and the change of pace accounts for a lot of it. Maybe least tangible of all, one of the fun things about beer drinking is drinking beer brewed for a reason. This beer is specifically brewed for this season and it gives it a specialness. It's a part of it people also enjoy." The warm weather also offers beer drinkers a chance to get outdoors and enjoy their favorite products. "People are looking for a good, drinkable beer - for beer-garden beers," says Mary Anschutz, Vice President of Marketing for Paulaner North America. "You want to sit outside when life is good and treat yourself to something special."
The summer months are often associated with the typical "lawnmower" beer, usually a freezing cold light lager, preferably in a can, with little hop bite and a low level of malt body. For the discerning beer drinker, this new season offers much more in the way of styles and flavors. The "summer" classification is given to certain styles of beer that are considered to be, among others qualities, crisp, refreshing, light or thirst-quenching. A limited review of summer brews, taken from many different styles and sub-styles, can best be broken down into four categories: 1 German-style Wheat Ales, 2 Belgian-style Witbiers, 3 American-style Wheat Ales and 4 Other miscellaneous ales and lagers.
When one thinks of the qualities of a summer beer, the mind drifts to lofty dreams of a light, refreshing drink with a crisp, perhaps fruity flavor. To fulfill such warm-weather dreams, German-style wheat ales are the classic warm weather brews. These beers, inspired by the great German weiss tradition, use a proportion of at least 50 percent malted wheat in the mash to add a luminous protein haze. The large German wheat ale category encompasses a broad array of interpretations and sub-styles.
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" in German), the fermentation yeast is included for bottle-conditioning and may leave the ale a bit cloudy or hazy. Hefe-weizens, also known as hefe-weissbier ("weiss" is German for "white"), 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.
Consumers have several solid options in this category of summer-sipping beer. The Schneider Weisse, distributed by B. United International, is perhaps the classic representation of the style. "It's wonderfully refreshing, very spicy and flavorful, with all the classic ingredients - nutmeg, clove and banana flavors," notes B. United's President Matthias Neidhart. "At 5.2 percent alcohol by volume, it's not really heavy. You can have several glasses and it won't burden you too much." The Paulaner Hefe-weizen is another strong choice for thirst quenching. This brew has a hazy, luminous orange color and pours with a big, rugged head. True to style, it has a strong clove bouquet mixed with some peppery hints and very low hop levels. Paulaner North America also distributes the Hacker-Pschorr Hefe-Weizen, a beer that is very similar to the Paulaner version except that it is slightly more dry on the palate. Both beers are made with 60 percent malted wheat in the mash. Merchant du Vin offers the classic Ayinger Hefe-weizen, which boasts an impressive head and serves its thirst-quenching purpose with some hints of clove.
After selecting the appropriate hefe-weizen, the consumer should consider another classic summer beer question &endash; with or without lemon. This debate occurs among beer purists who disdain the notion of adding foreign flavors to the beer after the brewing process is complete. At the other side of the bar, there are many, including Storey of Harpoon, who shrug off the whole issue. "The origins of this practice go back to Bavaria, so it does have some historical precedent in beer drinking culture. We don't get hung-up on beer protocol. We are big admirers of beer drinking traditions on the one hand, but on the other hand, beer is about fun. If you debate the minutiae of it all, you lose the forest for the trees," he notes. "I recommend you serve it with a slice of lemon, but..." Storey is interrupted by Harpoon colleague and Director of Brewing Operations, Al Marzi, who finishes his sentence: "We don't get huffy if you don't want the lemon." In an attempt to bridge this gap, servers should perhaps consider asking thirsty customers before adorning the beer with extra fruity accompaniments.
The Berliner Weisse is the final selected German wheat ale sub-style, as highlighted in the Association of Brewers' (AOB) Style Guidelines. This northern German style is the lightest of the wheat ales, and employs a combination of yeast and lactic acid bacteria fermentation. This unique process yields a highly acidic, sour and tart beer which is light in body and low in alcohol. To counteract the style's powerful sour flavor, the Berliner Weisse is often subjected to a rather peculiar happening - consumers pour sugary syrup into the beer! The array of three wide Berliner Weisse beer glasses filled with the accompanying syrups is a popular German beer image. When placed together, the glasses conjure up an image not unlike a stop light with the bright red, yellow and green contrasting colors. The green syrup is Waldmeister, with the earthy flavors of the Woodruff herb. Himbeer is a sweet raspberry syrup that mixes with the weisse to make an orange and reddish final color.
The classic version of this style is B. United's Berliner Kindl Weisse, an extremely sour and tart brew, whose lactic acid presence makes itself known upon the first taste. It has a hazy, straw color, and its first sip exudes a strong hop bitterness that rolls into a tart, bittersweet finish. This beer can be very mouth-puckering if consumed without the aid of the sweet syrups. "It has low-alcohol, is enjoyed as an aperitif in place of champagne, and is extremely refreshing in the summer," according to Neidhart.
Across the border, Belgian-style wheat beers, also known as "wit" or "white" beers, use a proportion of unmalted wheat in the mash. These beers have very noticeable flavor additions in the form of Curacao, orange peel and coriander. The beers often have a hazy white appearance and a spicy nose and overall flavor.
Several North American breweries make excellent versions of the Belgian witbier style. The Allagash Brewing Company distributes the lovely Allagash White, a dull yellow beer with a lacey white head and a crisp, fruity wheat malt flavor. Canadian brewer Unibroue produces the Blanche de Chambly, a spicy and citrusy version of this style. An interesting newcomer to the Northeast market can be found in the Whirlwind Witbier offered by the Victory Brewing Company, distributed in Massachusetts by Atlantic Importing. The Whirlwind is a reliable interpretation of the witbier style, replete with Belgian yeast strain and unmalted wheat. The beer opens with a mix of citrus and spice in the nose, and remains flowery and refreshing through the finish. Bigger brewers have also entered the Belgian beer game - Coors produces the widely available Blue Moon Belgian White, an unfiltered wheat ale brewed in the Belgian tradition.
On this side of the pond, American-style wheat beers are a relatively new classification. The AOB places this style of beer in its "hybrid or mixed style" classification. The American wheat style, much like the large German classification, encompasses many sub-styles. In favor of brevity, the sub-styles (minus the dark varieties) can be made with either ale or lager yeast, contain an addition of about 30 to 50 percent wheat in the mash, and should not have any phenolic, clove or banana esters.
A previous Great American Beer Festival gold medal winner is the High Rollers Wheat Beer, produced by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. This beer has a deep golden color, and drinkers enjoy a tangy and crisp flavor. The Redhook Hefe-weizen is a beer that, while labeled as a weiss style, is probably better suited in the American Wheat category. This beer is very earthy, with a strong wheat malt flavor and some citrusy flavors, but far from the phenolic flavors of a true hefe-weizen style beer. The Harpoon UFO (UnFiltered Offering) has a hazy orange color, a nose of sweet citrus and wheat with no perceptible hint of clove, and very tight beads of carbonation on the surface of the head. The beer is initially a bit more bitter than expected, but is very crisp and refreshing. Magic Hat's Hocus Pocus, another in a long line of befuddling, if not intriguing, product names, might be classified as an American Wheat ale. The straw-colored brew has a fruity aroma with some hints of clove, which if more pronounced would preclude this product from the American Wheat style.
For those who are looking for something out of the traditional wheat lineup, but with many of the characteristics of a fine summer beer, there are several other styles to consider. The following miscellaneous beer styles are all German in origin and their appearances may at first suggest very similar flavors. A few sips of each style will prove otherwise to the seasoned beer drinker.
The Helles style, also known as Munich Helles, was created because of the thriving Munich brewing community's geological limitations - the inability to brew hoppy beers with their Bavarian valley water. So the brewers turned their attention from the hoppier, crisper pilsners of their Czech neighbors to a more malty brew. So while these beers may share a pale to golden color, the flavor profiles are contrasts. A helles-style ("helles" is German for pale or light) beer will usually have a pale or golden color, a rich, malty body, and a low hop bitterness and aroma. It is the classic German lager, and is often served from the giant forest green growlers seen in Munich's beer-gardens.
The Dornbusch Brewing Company brews its Dornbusch Gold, a beautiful beer that nicely balances the helles style's elevated hop levels with its crisp, dry malt flavors. At the brewpub scene, Brew Moon-Cambridge offers the popular Munich Gold, a grainy brew made with obvious ample helpings of rich Munich malt.
In the German brewing city of Dortmund, the nature of the water supply allows local brewers to brew a hoppier beer with a lower malt profile. The dortmunder style, also known as Export style, is usually pale to golden, with a medium body balanced by a full pale malt flavor and medium hop bitterness. In local brewing circles, Buzzard Bay's Olde Buzzard Lager and Smuttynose's Portsmouth Lager are both excellent representations of the Dortmunder style.
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 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.
The final link in the triad of German golden beers is the one most unlike the others. In a land of lagers, the brewers of Cologne ("Koln" in German) rebelled against the bottom-fermenting beer, so prevalent in Germany, and created a hybrid beer style. A Kolsch is a pale golden ale with a dry flavor, medium hop bitterness and a mild, fruity aroma. This beer style utilizes a top-fermenting ale yeast and should exhibit some floral hop qualities, though not nearly as much as traditional ale styles.
The classic German example of the style is the Reissdorf Kolsch. It has been brewed for more than 100 years by the Brauerei Heinrich Reissdorf in Cologne, Germany. The beer is fermented for eight days, with an additional four weeks of conditioning. It boasts a lightly sweet body, with some hints of restrained fruitiness and a dry finish. The beer is considered a perfect session ale with an abv of 4.8 percent.
Many American "Summer" beers will best fit the Kolsch profile. The Widmer Brothers Brewing Company's Sommerbrau is a thirst quenching brew with a medium body and a grainy finishing flavor. The Harpoon Summer beer is another strong example of the Kolsch style. "I hate to call it a light body beer because it is not a light beer," says Harpoon's Al Marzi. "Kolsch is a fairly straightforward style. What you see is what you get. It has a lighter body than an Octoberfest, but it is fairly dry and has a crisp clean finish. It's easy to have more than one pint of this one." The straw-colored beer presents a long-lasting head, with a lightly fruity essence. It has a slightly bitter flavor upfront and a mildly sweet malt finish. The Catamount 8 Lives may be considered a "golden ale", but it finds a proper home in the Kolsch category. "This is not a summer seasonal per se," says Harpoon's Charlie Storey. The beer uses a different hop than the Harpoon Summer, a Sincoe hop, that imparts a fruity, almost mango-like essence. It has a little sweetness upfront, though Marzi reports the beer is not as attenuated as the Harpoon Summer. The beer is very refreshing, with a light golden color, a low hop bitterness and an impressive floral flavor from beginning to end.
All of this discussion of seasonal beers is not without its detractors. Some people in the beer community are questioning the utility of seasonal beer classifications. B. United's Matthias Neidhart is one such person. "We don't promote our beers as "summer" beers. I don't think there is any such thing as a "summer" beer. When they talk about summer beers, people think of beers that are not as strong as those in winter time. I don't necessarily agree with that. Again, it's difficult to say one beer is for the summer or not. We have very few beers in our portfolio that are brewed for a specific season."
While Neidhart challenges the classification system, he concedes that certain beers are better consumed in certain types of weather or at certain points during the day. "There are extreme examples of beers that are not enjoyed in the summer. It really depends. If I am on my patio at ten at night in 85 degree weather, I might enjoy an English Old Ale with 10 or 11 percent alcohol by volume. You might not drink it at noontime because it's too strong," he says. "People may tend to enjoy some beers more in summer, but they can enjoy them throughout the year."
It is this last theme that seems very prevalent in the industry. "It's hard to quantify what people want in the summer because it matters what people want all year round," says Stacey Steinmetz, Director of Marketing for Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing Company. Producers believe their beers should be enjoyed year round, not just during a seasonal rotation. "People keep telling us we would sell tons of the seasonals in the winter," Neidhart reports. "We would love to have them all year long. This goes for all our so-to-speak "summer" beers. Each beer in its own right has great flavors. If you like this category you will like these classic beers. It doesn't matter if it is fall or summer, you will enjoy it throughout the year."
Moreover, the drinking public may be a bit confused by the seasonal release schedule. "People complain to us when the beers are out - they can't get it in November or December," says Neidhart. "There is an anticipation for the seasonals," reports Steinmetz. "People cry out for them when they are gone. With all of seasonals, they have a fan base that scoop them up and get psyched to have them."
The summer release schedule has also served as a test run for some beers that move from the bullpen to the regular rotation after positive consumer response, according to Redhook's Jerry Prial. "People are introduced to the seasonals in the summer and they become a favorite all year round." This was the case with Magic Hat's flagship brew, the fruity #9, according to Steinmetz. "It was originally introduced as a summer beer. With the general hint of apricot, we thought it would be more of a summer beer. Then we saw it go all the way. When we tried to remove it, people cried and yelled out and stomped their feet and told us we were taking away the nectar of God. Now its our best selling beer, and is very successful all year 'round."
Warm weather seasonals do not even really have to match up with the traditional lineup of flavors to be successful. "Our IPA started as a summer seasonal, and that's how it entered the Harpoon family," says Charlie Storey. "The IPA doesn't necessarily have the characteristics people want in a summer beer. It's big and bitter and I wouldn't describe it as crisp. We offer this to disprove that all summer beers must be light bodied." Of the IPA, Marzi adds that "you wouldn't want to chug it after you cut the lawn."
Many who offer seasonal-style beers throughout the year do not always see fluctuation in the market, according to several industry sources. "We brew the hefe-weizen all year round and we see a sales spike in the summer. But it's becoming popular all year 'round," according to Redhook's Prial. B. United's lineup has experienced similar sales volumes. "The Schneider Weisse was a highly seasonal beer and now it is enjoyed throughout the year. People don't want to miss it in December...these beers are enjoyed in February and March as well as in the summer," says Neidhart.
Overall, the seasonal releases make a strong economic impact on a producer's bottom line. "Our seasonal beer is the Blonde Ale, which is our spring and summer seasonal. Of all of our beers, the Blonde Ale is our largest selling seasonal. The Northeast reacts really well to it," says Redhook's Prial. Redhook's Blonde Ale accounts for about 17 percent of all seasonal sales for the company, and 10 percent of sales across all products, according to Prial. The people at Harpoon concur, says Charlie Storey. "The summer seasonal plays a fairly major role in our beer lineup. During its release, the summer seasonal is only second to the IPA in actual sales." Despite the length of the summer product window, Harpoon's Summer beer is second to Harpoon's Winter Warmer in actual sales volume. "We are very encouraged for the prospects of the summer beer and expect it to be a close second," says Storey.
Maybe there is something special about a seasonal, as Charlie Storey noted. The beer is brewed for a specific occasion and that makes it special in the minds of some drinkers who eagerly anticipate each new release. Without seasonals, the Blessing of the Bock festivals, wonderful winter warming parties and lazy sunny days with tall weizen glasses might not be quite the same. Certainly, these events could all still occur. But their mystique and celebratory nature would lose a little of their shine.
Regardless of where you come out on all of the debates - either for or against the lemon wedge, in support of or in opposition to the seasonal classification of beers - Harpoon's Charlie Storey believes one thing with which we can all agree: "The summertime is appropriate for all kinds of beer drinking."