The beer aisle can be a daunting place to visit in the summertime. Seasonal wheats, saisons and fruity brews beckon to you from every direction. How will you ever make up your mind? Fortunately, you don’t have to. We talked to Greenville, South Carolina, cicerone (like a beer sommelier) Jon Richards of the Greenville Growler Station, and he has some regional favorites as well as national mainstays perfect for a barbecue, a camping trip, an all-day tanning session or however else you plan to spend the long, hot days ahead.
RJ Rockers Son of a Peach; South Carolina
RJ Rockers has been making beers in upstate South Carolina for 20 years, but this is the beer that put them on the map. The Son of a Peach uses “real angry peaches,” as they say at the brewery, and carries an unmistakable, but still not overpowering peach aroma and flavor. Quick with the sweetness, the wheat takes over and gives the beer a smooth but dry finish, leaving your palate craving that touch of peach after every sip. This beer has been so popular that it became a year-round product for the brewery in 2013.
21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon; California
This is simultaneously one of the best-named beers (with a nod to the one above) and one of the great fruit beers you will find. Using a secondary fermentation to introduce the watermelon creates a balance of flavor rarely equaled. It’s a wheat beer first, but the watermelon rides underneath and shines in the finish, leaving you with an acidic little bite and the sweet flavor of the fruit to hold you over until your next sip.
Carolina Sky Blue Kölsch; North Carolina
I’m not sure any style says summer better than kölsch. True to form, this is an ale fermentation that undergoes a long, cold aging period like a lager, so it is smooth, clean and straightforward. The light spicy-floral aroma of Hallertau hops gives way to a very light, bready, malty body. There is very little bitterness to speak of; instead, it has a pleasant light fruitiness to accent the sweetness of the malts. This is a great session beer to drink in quantity on a hot summer day.
Bell’s Oberon Ale; Michigan
As soon as the weather starts to warm, we see this wheat beer from Kalamazoo hit the shelves, but it’s not really at it’s best until deeper into summer. Hops lend a gentle spiciness, a light orangey fruitiness to the beer and clean up the delicate malty sweetness on the end like a champ. For those of you still holding a big-name American macro-brew because you think it’s too hot outside for craft, I dare you to try something different.
Thomas Creek Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale; South Carolina
This one happens to be the official beer of the Greenville Griffins Rugby team. If you’ve had a hard day in the yard, whether it’s from using a lawn mower or emerging from a scrum, this is your beer. It’s a light-bodied American cream ale, with just a hint of vanilla sweetness from Tahitian and Madagascar bourbon vanilla. It’s as refreshing as they come.
Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy; Wisconsin
This light Wisconsin brew is based on the shandy from England—a mix of a light ale with lemonade, a sort of grown-up Arnold Palmer. Here’s the trick, beer lovers: Get this beer from only a craft retailer you trust, and check the freshness date on it. When it’s fresh and well taken care of, this beer is incredibly refreshing with what tastes like real lemonade, lots of carbonation and a light, bready maltiness to remind you that it is, in fact, a beer.
Hi-Wire Man Eater Double IPA; North Carolina
I happily stumbled upon Man Eater on a visit to the Hi-Wire brewery. The Ashville brewery uses its entire year’s allotment of Citra and Amarillo hops to create an arrestingly hoppy beer. An abundance of citrus and tropical fruit are showcased right up front, but a delicate toffee-sweet maltiness keeps the bitterness at bay, and the finish is so spicy, sharp and dry as to almost be sour on the tongue. Sadly, it’s available only in western North Carolina at the moment; Hi-Wire might be the smallest brewery in America to bottle its beer for off-premises distribution. It’s offered in the tasting room, local bars and grocery stores, and it’s worth the trip.
Quest Ponce Saison; South Carolina
This saison, brewed with cucumber and jalapeño, provides an interesting change of pace. Saisons, of course, are already great summer beers; but add some extra-summery ingredients and you get magic. Your first whiff smells like a jar of jalapenos, but don’t be misled—the taste has the refreshing juiciness of cucumber in full display. The peppers add a pleasant dry spiciness to the earthy finish.
Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale; California
The Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is a wheat beer, but it’s hopped up to the level of IPA. Experienced craft drinkers are going to note the unmistakable wheat-malt richness, but everyone else is going revel in the bright, citrusy hoppiness, crisp bitterness and spicy finish of an IPA.
Jon Richards is a Cicerone Certified Beer Server at The Growler Station in Greenville, South Carolina, where it is his job to taste more than three dozen beers every week. He also leads tours of Greenville’s up-and-coming craft beer scene at Greenville Brew Tours