062306 Six sizzling summer suggestions from spicy saison to beer-enhanced dessert

SUMMER IS HERE and, if the 90-degree temps haven’t pounded the obvious into your brain yet, allow me:

It’s beer-drinking season.

Many of you will stick with the same thing you’ve been drinking all year, and that’s a mistake. Summertime is for changing your dreary, old routine. Go barefoot, take a vacation and try something new.

Here’s six ways to shake things up this summer.

Say saison

For years, beer freaks have been griping about the quality of American-made wheat beer because many of the domestics come off like dumbed-down versions of classic European styles.

Gradually, though, U.S. craft brewers have been putting their own signatures on wheat, especially in the new raft of saison, or farmhouse-style ales. These brews offer a bit more body than the standard American wheat, with thirst-quenching, spicy flavors. Saison goes well with food; try a bottle with grilled sausage or burgers.

Because saison does not have strict style guidelines, brewers tend to experiment with the ingredients; no two are the same. This sixpack of American-made saisons offers a variety of excellent flavors:

  1. Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale: A classic easy-drinking beer. Down a bottle or two while mowing the lawn.
  2. Sly Fox Saison Vos: Available in 25-ouncers, it’s an usually bittered saison. I’m thinking it’ll mellow with age, so buy two bottles now and hold onto one till Labor Day.
  3. Victory V Saison: Another large bottle, this one is spiced with German hops.
  4. Yards Saison: Not sure if you’ll like saison? You can find this one stuffed into the Kensington brewer’s variety cases.
  5. Clipper City Red Sky at Night: Available in bottles, but it’s worth the effort to track it down on tap.
  6. Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere: An exceptionally spiced ale from this very hot Michigan brewery.

Crack open a can

Stuck on a boat or sunning by the swimming pool, where glass bottles are banned? You don’t have to settle for bland taste; more and more craft brewers are putting their beer in a can.

Reach for Sly Fox’s Phoenix Pale Ale and Pikeland Pils, Dale’s Pale Ale and Old Chub from the Americans; Ruddles Pub Ale, Badger Brewery Dorset Best and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from the Brits; and Brasserie des Rocs Blonde and Bavik’s Wittekerke from the Belgies.

Look for more variety

I’ve gotta give a shout-out to the best summertime variety pack on the shelves this season: Saranac’s 12 Beers of Summer.

For as little as 15 bucks, you can score two each of F.X. Matt’s easiest-sipping beers, including: Kolsch, Hefeweizen, Belgian White, Summer Ale, Golden Pilsener and the new, fruit-and-honey-flavored Mountain Ale.

Throw a kegger

C’mon, when was the last time you tapped a keg? College?

A cold barrel in an ice bucket is party central, especially if you opt for one of the new, smaller sixtel (one-sixth) kegs of craft beer. Any decent distributor will track down a sixtel of your favorite brand in a day or two.

Unlike those big halves, a sixtel is no-sweat – it’s lighter, cheaper and quicker to kick. Just rent the tapping equipment from the distributor and you’re good to go.

Get to a beer festival

Explore the new flavors craft breweries are producing, meet fellow beer freaks and wear your loudest shirt.

You can start tomorrow at the 10th annual Garden State Craft Brewers Festival aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey on the Camden waterfront. More than 50 Jersey-fresh brews will be pouring, and the ticket lets you tour the historic battleship. $30, 866-877-6262, ext. 108.

Other summer festivals to check out:

July 8: Royal Stumble, the annual wrasslin’/beer-drinking contest at Nodding Head Brewery. $30, 215-569-9525.

July 22: Brew Expo ’06, featuring dozens of East Coast brewers, in State College, Pa. $35, 814-692-8529.

July 29: Brew at the Zoo, with Philadelphia-area breweries at the Elmwood Park Zoo, benefiting the Delaware Valley Chapter of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. $35, 610-275-2775.

Eat your beer

Chefs, summertime is your moment to shine at the grill, and I don’t just mean sweating over your Weber.

Give that beer-can chicken recipe a try. All you need is a decent-flavored can of beer and some peppery barbecue spices. Shove the (open) can into the bird’s cavity and the beer’ll baste those great flavors right into the moistened meat.

For dessert, try this one I discovered while trying the new Ben & Jerry’s Black & Tan ice cream: stout floats. Just plunk a scoop or two of your favorite ice cream into a half-pint of Stoudt’s Black Dog oatmeal imperial stout. The ale’s bitterness perfectly complements the sugary ice cream.

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