Just as beer drinkers are wise to bolster their knowledge and appreciation of fine wine, so too are wine lovers well served by opening their palates (and possibly snooty attitudes–hey, if this isn’t you, cool, but if the shoe fits... ) to embrace the attributes of great beer. And with the hot and muggy season upon us, what better time to begin the exploration?
Before you get your grape-stained cargo shorts all in a twist, no one’s saying that summertime wines aren’t marvelous. A bright, lively albariño between dips in the pool is just right, and lobster with white Burgundy is clearly one of life’s great pleasures. But after scooping divots on the back nine or powering the two-stroke around that precious carpet of green, who in their right mind is going to upend a 750ml of pinot bianco to cool off?
That’s right... no one. Beer has many qualities in common with wine but on one count at least, it stands head and shoulders above the sacred juice. Refreshment. Pure and simple restoration of body and spirit after a sweaty, grueling encounter with just about anything.
So if you’re willing to concede at least a nugget of truth in what I’m saying, let’s wrap our parched lips around some top-notch, steamy day beer options.
The simplest approach to good warm weather guzzling is to look for anything with bitter, white, wit, weisse, weizen, wheat, Kölsch, lambic, summer or seasonal on the label. “Your list is like, totally incomplete,” the beer geeks will shout; that may be my friends, but we’re trying to bring a few folks over from the grape side, so cut me some slack here.
Bitter, as in English bitters or special bitters, is a traditional ale style with a good but not overwhelming dose of hops, nicely balanced with some malty goodness and showing a touch of fruit. They’re typically on the lower side in alcohol (a plus in the summer heat), light in body and gold to copper in color. Think of them like an IPA’s little brother who can’t quite hop like the monster but who still delivers tremendous drinkability and refreshment.
White, wit and weisse (or weiss), all meaning, duh... white, are made with wheat, as in weizen or wheat (and maybe a dollop of oatmeal) and often sport a complex, citrusy spiciness, rendering them stone-cold delicious and exceptionally refreshing. White beers may come from Belgium or Germany and are increasingly beloved by American craft brewers.
Straight wheat beers are likewise a mainstay of American brewers and are perfect for summer enjoyment, though for a step up in flavor and personality turn your sights to the original European versions. What’s more, in a good beer joint you can expect to get a show to go with your order for a classic weissbier or hefeweizen.
Properly served, a very tall glass is placed over the bottle and the duo is inverted in a single, smooth motion. As the beer fills the glass the bottle is slowly raised until it leaves a marshmallowy two or three inch head, at which point the bottle is removed and either swirled wine-style or rolled back and forth on its side. This little trick gathers up all the remaining yeast (these babies are bottled sur lies) mixing it with the remaining foam, which concoction is then used to top off the glass, often followed by garnishing with a slice of lemon. Once served, dive into this gorgeous brew in all its orange, banana, and clove ester-ness for a singular beer experience.
Moving from “show” beers back to our list, Kölsch describes a golden ale produced in Cologne, Germany, and, well... anywhere outside the EU, like the U.S., that makes this soft, hoppy, kinda fruity, kinda bitter, kind of not, easy and delicious, summer sipper. And then we have the lambics.
These Belgian throwbacks are open fermented with wild yeast (something any true vinophile can appreciate) after a convoluted mashing process that leaves even beer folks scratching their heads. The result is a sour, somewhat earthy, carbonated brew that in overly simplistic terms is called “gueuze” when unflavored and “fruit lambic” when made with cherries, raspberries, cassis or peaches. Though it can be a love or hate proposition, the fruit flavors are rich and pure, and the higher acidity makes these summer quaffers a perfect match for any number of foods.
Finally, we have the summer or seasonal variants. A common bit of nomenclature among North American craft brewers, these are typically dosed with spice or fruit or a particularly interesting strain of hops. They’re made to refresh and encourage you to enjoy more than one. And most are excellent, a cut above the everyday pale ale or light lager. You may find rye ale or blueberry lager or any number of possibilities.
Now that you have some worthy options, trade in the wine stem for a beer tulip now and again. There are terrific beers out there, and if there’s one thing wine drinkers love, it’s finding the next new taste. If you’re not sure which ale or lager, which witbier or lambic to try, put together a mixed six-pack. One of the beauties of beer is that it’s generally inexpensive. You can mix and match and hold your own tasting of half a dozen possibilities for the cost of a single bottle of good wine. Exploration and economics, a summer combo that’s hard to beat!
Jim Laughren is founder of the Chicago-based consulting firm, WineHead Consulting. His book, A Beer Drinker’s Guide To Knowing And Enjoying Fine Wine, was recently published by Crosstown Publishing
and is written to educate without patronizing.