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).
The lightest, leanest summer beer is probably a German-style pilsner. Long the model for mass-produced American lagers (pilsners belong to the larger category of lagers; in fact, all beers are either lagers or ales), a true German pilsner, which has been gaining popularity in this country, is a deep-flavored beer with a very dry, almost bitter finish. Pyramid Sun Fest from Seattle's Pyramid Brewery has the clean, floral aromas and complex flavors of a top imported pilsner. Available from late May through September in 27 states, it's an effervescent brew that's particularly appealing as an aperitif (about $7 for a six-pack; 800-603-3336).
Another great pilsner is the Blue Paddle Pilsener from New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. It has a toasty flavor that's reminiscent of grilled summer corn; indeed, the two are a perfect match. This beer also has the earthy character of Europe's best, especially impressive for a brewery that otherwise specializes in sweeter Belgian-style ales. The Blue Paddle Pilsener started out as a summer seasonal, too, but it's now distributed year-round in 10 western and southwestern states (about $6 for a six-pack; 888-622-4044).
Although its name would seem to suggest otherwise, pale ale and its zestier, earthier, slightly higher in alcohol cousin, India Pale Ale (IPA), are far from pale. Actually, they're both copper-red, as well as crisp, fairly full-bodied and invariably quite dry. New York's Brooklyn Brewery, now shipping its celebrated beers year-round to 12 eastern states, named its Pennant Pale Ale in honor of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, but anyone heading to Yankee Stadium can find it. This beer deftly balances malty sweetness with a tart hop bitterness. Try it with a sauerkraut-topped hot dog or bratwurst (about $7 for a six-pack; 718-486-7422).
Should your summer menu call for shellfish, pick up Pike Brewing's benchmark Pike Pale Ale, first brewed in Seattle's seafood-rich Pike Place Market. Leaner and more sinuous than the Pennant Pale Ale, Pike Pale Ale is truly refreshing, loaded with cider-apple flavors and piney hops. It's available on the West Coast year-round (about $8 for a six-pack; 206-394-5959).
And, finally, if you're looking for something more substantial, the Full Sail IPA from the Full Sail Brewery in Hood River, Oregon, is a fortifying choice. Though fruity and robust at 6.5-percent alcohol, it still has an effervescent, citrusy punch on the finish. The Full Sail IPA is sold in 13 western states year-round (about $7 for a six-pack; 888-BIG-BEER).
Brewed from wheat as well as barley (all beer is made with some barley), wheat beers may be the most popular style of summer beer. They have long been favored in Belgium and Bavaria--so much so in Bavaria that the locals drink them at breakfast. Tart and citrusy yet yeasty and creamy, wheat beers can also be slightly exotic, especially the Belgian versions. Belgian brewers often add spices like coriander and Curaçao orange peel to give their brews a bit more tang.
Michelob Hefeweizen, one of America's best wheat beers, is made by the brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch. Even beer snobs have to admit that it's an authentic take on the classic Bavarian style. With its banana-apple aromas and soft, sumptuous texture, it's just the beer to soothe your palate after a few spice-rubbed ribs. Hefeweizen is brewed year-round and is readily available across the country (about $6 for a six-pack).
Another equally quenching and more exotic wheat beer is Spanish Peaks White Ale, a Belgian-style Witbier (white beer), another name for wheat beer, that's spicy and piquant but velvety smooth and a great match for Asian food. It has a pronounced coconut flavor, though it's made in decidedly untropical Bozeman, Montana. Like many American wheat beers, this one was originally a summer seasonal that became so popular it's now sold nationally year-round (about $6 for a six-pack).
A traditional brewing practice with a special connection to summer is the use of fruit as a flavoring in beer. Fruit beers are usually wheat beers spiked with fruit syrup or infused with whole fruit. Although many fruit beers are overly sweet, those made with judicious amounts of syrup or fruit can be unusually refreshing. One of the best on the market is Magic Hat #9, a delicately fruity and exotically perfumed ale from Magic Hat Brewing in South Burlington, Vermont. Brewed with a hint of apricot essence and identified by a psychedelic orange label, Magic Hat #9 was once sold only during the summer; now it's available throughout the year in New England and Maryland (about $7 for a six-pack; 802-658-2739).
Abita Purple Haze, a raspberry wheat beer from Abita Brewing in Louisiana, is another great beer in a vivid package. It's flavored with raspberry puree and has an appetite-whetting tartness reminiscent of a rosé Champagne. Both Magic Hat #9 and Abita Purple Haze are best as aperitifs rather than as partners with food, but either would make a terrific conversation piece. Abita is the easier of the two to find: it's available year-round in 22 southern, midwestern and northeastern states (about $7 for a six-pack; 800-737-2311).
David Lynch is a senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.