By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
It's with mixed feelings and no small measure of trepidation that I approach a beer labeled with the word "summer." Sure, they're a great way to draw macro beer drinkers into the craft world — a Hop Sun is a whole lot less scary than a Local No. 1 — due to their light body, relatively low carbonation and hop levels, and "drinkability." But that last word sometimes gets tangled up in the world of macro beer, and unfortunately so do some of the summer ales I've tasted.
To sort the best from the rest and determine what makes a good summer ale, I rounded up summer seasonals from some of New York's top brewers (special thanks to the good people at Buffalo's Village Beer Merchant for bending the "single bottle" rules for me!) and tasted them side by side.
Starting with the New Yorkers in the bunch, I began with Brooklyn Summer Ale, though I probably should've ended with it since it has the most assertive hop profile of the beers sampled. A ripe hop nose of pointed citrus and yeast gives way to a crisp mouthfeel with low carbonation smoothing out the finish.
By comparison Blue Point Brewery Summer Ale showed a floral, spicy nose — like a hefeweizen almost but without the level of coriander — but lost me when it fell apart on the mouthfeel into a watery finish reminiscent of soft, minerally tap water.
Does a beer need to be thin or watery to be "drinkable"? I certainly hope not.
Blue Point's far superior Toasted Lager is a more complex yet quite refreshing choice for a hot summer day.
Out of Saratoga Springs, NY comes the cleverly marketed Shmaltz Brewing Company and their summer line, out of which I selected Mermaid Pilsner. With seven types of malt listed on the bottle including rye, wheat and flaked oats, and four hop varieties including a dry hop, this rye pils is anything but boring. Instead it's a Grandma-esque bouquet of potpourri and floral hop resin on the nose, and an almost dusty hop palate with barely any rye to lend some softer texture. It all just seems out of whack: it's great to break out of the light summer lager mold, but this dried flower explosion is more "seasonal allergies" than "seasonal."
I recently reviewed Lake Placid’s summer seasonal, Honey Rye, so I won’t reiterate here except to say it’s a smooth and tasty beer that shows its rye subtly but nicely.
Saranac, another member of the Matt Brewing family, offers a whole variety pack of summer ales, of which the tastiest and most put-together is the Helles lager. Delicate lemon and herbs, a little more full on the palate than on the nose, nice level of carbonation – this one is refreshing and uncomplicated.
Western New York beer drinkers are almost certainly familiar with Southern Tier’s classic Hop Sun Summer Wheat, which strikes that balance between hoppy and quaffable with surprising ease. Hopheads and wheat fans don’t tend to agree on much, but this one is a good compromise and at 4.9% ABV is certainly one of the more restrained of Southern Tier’s beers.
There are some nice session beers in this lineup, notably the Brooklyn, Lake Placid and Southern Tier selections, which will please seasoned craft drinkers and draw plenty of macro drinkers away from their apple juice, at least for an afternoon. But each of these breweries produces other year-round beers that arguably make much better session brews, and I have to wonder: how much of a need is there for a “summer ale” per se?
New York’s breweries produce fabulous lagers, pilsners, ryes, weissbiers and even lambics — aren’t those all great summer choices that showcase a brewer’s skills and knowledge without sacrificing quaffability?
What do you think — what are your favorite summer beers, and what makes a good one?