Reach for a beer that calls itself Summersomethingorother, and you really don’t know what you’re going to come up with.
Victory Summer Love? It’s a blond ale.
Samuel Adams Summer Ale? It’s a spiced wheat beer.
Brooklyn Summer Ale? It’s an English-style pale ale.
Sierra Nevada Summerfest? A Bohemian pilsner.
Harpoon Summer Beer is a German-style kolsch. Breckenridge SummerBright is made with lemon and orange peels. Cricket Hill Jersey Summer is a Belgian-style pale ale.
Basically, a brewer can call anything a “summer” beer, as long as it’s refreshing.
But what makes a beer refreshing? It’s a surprisingly complex and sometimes contradictory array of factors.
For example, color. It’s got to be blond, yellow or nearly clear, right? All of the beers above are a pale-faced as Lady Gaga.
But then, how do you explain the affection that Africa’s equatorial regions hold for Guinness Stout, or the love they show in Jamaica for Dragon Stout, or Brazil’s passion for Xingu Black Beer?
I’ll give you another dark one: Rodenbach. It’s red, almost brown, yet it’s often called “the most refreshing beer in the world.”
Credit its yeast and bacteria culture, along with barrel-aging, which give it a distinctively sour flavor. Yep, sour is refreshing, too. If you don’t think so, howcum you still drink lemonade on your momma’s back porch every summer?
Speaking of which, citrus flavor is refreshing, too, whether in the form of a shandy (lemonade plus beer) or a classic Belgian-style witbier (wheat beer brewed with orange peel). Depending on their variety of hops, some pale ales can seem fruity, too. Cascades hops smell and taste like grapefruit, for example.
These fruity flavors – along with tingling carbonation – produce a tongue-cleansing sensation, as if your beer is washing out all the muck and humidity of an August afternoon. The result is a clean, crisp finish – another way of describing refreshment.
But refreshment isn’t just about flavor. Consider body.
Typically, lighter-body beers – those with a relatively low content of dissolved solids – are easier to gulp, and thus seem more refreshing. Brewers can make a beer lighter by adding water, as in light beer. But that also reduces flavor and character. Substituting a portion of rice for malted barley (a la Budweiser or, more interestingly, Flying Fish Exit 16) will also lighten the body, while producing a crisp finish.
Generally, light body goes hand in hand with low alcohol. Most brewers shoot for something around 5 percent alcohol in their summer beers.
But refreshment can still be found in high alcohol brews. Consider a Belgian-style tripel, like Victory Golden Monkey or La Fin Du Monde. Iced down, they’re light and dangerously easy to suck down and chill out.
Which brings me to the final criteria of refreshment: temperature.
A lot of beer drinkers mocked Coors Light when it declared a few years back that it was “the coldest-tasting beer.” Cold, they jeered, is a sensation, not a taste. I’m a bit more sympathetic because, let’s face it, without the cold, Coors Light has no other flavor.
Also, when it comes to refreshment, there’s something to be said for a c-c-c-cold beer.
Yes, I know, the full flavor of an ale really doesn’t reveal itself until it warms up to a cellar temperature of 50 degrees.
But global warming is upon us, friends, and now’s not the time to get pedantic about proper serving temperatures. In this heat, refreshment begins with dunking your paw into a ice chest and coming out with a near-frozen can that can be applied directly to your sweaty forehead.
That’s what makes beer refreshing.
I’ve collected two dozen different varieties for the summer edition of Joe Sixpack’s Case Club. It’s a simple case share that gives members a chance to try out new flavors without laying out the bucks for an entire case of one brand.
For more info on the club, and a look at this season’s selection, visit my website noted below.