Join the words summer and beer in a sentence and what might come to mind is a drink that's simple, quaffable and refreshing--something more likely to quench thirst than to inspire thought. But that's not all there is to summer beer: the best ones are sophisticated and subtle, with a marvelous depth of flavor. A growing number of American craft brewers have devoted considerable effort to the creation of seasonal beers, including some designed specifically for summer (though many of these became so popular they're now sold year-round). Other styles of beer, such as pilsners, pale ales, wheat beers and fruit beers, can also complement a picnic in June or combat the dog days of July and August. Here are 10 worth noting.
Before the invention of refrigeration, it was virtually impossible to make beer in the heat of the summer: the fermentations would bubble out of control during the brewing process. Instead, in the early 1800s, Belgian farmers learned how to make a light, spicy golden brew that contained enough alcohol to preserve it for long periods, thereby ensuring that it would last throughout the summer. The beer was made in late spring, stored in a cool place and drawn upon during the warm summer months. Known in Belgium as saison (season) and in northern France as bière de garde (beer to keep), it is still the ultimate summer beer.
Few American breweries have tackled this style, since traditional saisons, which undergo a complex Champagne-like secondary fermentation in the bottle, are difficult to make. But Ommegang, a brewery in Cooperstown, New York, does produce one. Ommegang's owners, Wendy Littlefield and Don Feinberg, both longtime Belgian beer im-porters, enlisted the help of several Belgian brewmasters to create the saison Hennepin, a stylish ale with flavors of orange, toasted grain and ginger. Alternately spicy and silky, it is complex, crisp and a great accompaniment to farmhouse cheeses. Best enjoyed now, Hennepin is nonetheless available year-round, and it's currently distributed in 30 states (about $7.50 for a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, about $4 for a 25.4-ounce cork-finished bottle; 800-656-1212).