Now that summer is officially upon us, you'd think no encouragement would be needed to drink beer.
The trouble is, when the weather turns hot and sticky, many beer drinkers reach reflexively for the lightest and blandest mainstream beer in the cooler. And while standard light lager does the trick on a hot day—it is both wet and thirst-quenching—more satisfying options are out there. After all, when the temperature soars, we change our food choices but we don't abandon flavor altogether; in fact, summer dishes are packed with taste. There's no reason that your beer choices shouldn't be just as diverse.
Here are the ways that Triangle-based breweries are facing the challenge of brewing a summer beer.
At Fullsteam in Durham, the bounty of summer means the return of Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale, brewed with 6 pounds per batch of whole leaf basil from Elysian Fields Farm in Cedar Grove and locally processed wheat from Catawba Valley. The beer, known originally as Very First Batch, was the first brewed on the company's new brewing system and wasn't planned for repeat production. Consumer demand, however, revived it. Given Fullsteam's plow-to-pint philosophy, look for other beers based on local harvests in the next month or so.
Roth Brewing Co. in Raleigh turned to a summer fruit to make Mi Mei, its honey plum hefeweizen, which mingles the Asian traditions of plum wine and refreshing German wheat beer. The red plums had to be blanched, peeled, pitted and pureed by hand, so don't count on very many batches. At 7 percent alcohol, treat it as you would a light summer wine; try it with sushi.
Top of the Hill brewpub tosses fresh blueberries into its Blue Ridge Blueberry Wheat, combining the light, spritzy quality of wheat beer with the bright zing of fruit. And if blueberries are the antioxidant blockbusters they're rumored to be, you can think of this as a health drink.
Raleigh's Big Boss Brewing Co. added an unusual grain to give its summer seasonal a novel twist. Sack Time amber rye ale is brewed with a measure of rye, which gives the beer a spicy, aromatic quality—think pumpernickel bread—and an almost astringent finish. Rye beer, or roggenbier, is a German tradition, but it is rare even there, so take this unusual opportunity to try a new flavor.
LoneRider Brewing Co. has taken a step back in time, releasing Sundance Kid, a pilsner. Pilsners are the original Czech-born progenitors of popular mainstream lagers. Unlike its attenuated offspring, a good pilsner presents a healthy twist of herbal hop bitterness to balance its smooth malt character.
And, at the end of July, a limited number of outlets will pour the winning beer from LoneRider's third annual Brew It Forward competition. Local home brewer Peter Saunders will have the honor of seeing his beer recipe scaled up for commercial production at the LoneRider facility. Fortuitously, Saunders chose to submit a beer in the Kölsch style, a delicate German hybrid with the crispness of a lager and the fruity esters of an ale. Bucking Bronco Kölsch should fit right in with LoneRider's outlaw gang.
Many local breweries have picked summer specialties from the ale family of beers, rather than the lager group, meaning that the beers, even the lighter styles, should display greater fruitiness than their lager counterparts—a welcome source of complexity.
Andy Laco, head brewer at Boylan Bridge Brewpub in Raleigh, recommends the brewpub's golden ale, which has a light body spiced with citric and piney notes from the hops; or English-style Endless Summer Ale, where the hops add more floral brightness and less bitterness.
At Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, look for Firecracker Pale Ale, a light, malty pale ale with enough hop character that head brewer Jon Connolly describes it as "snappy. It's a nice, refreshing pale ale, but not as heavy as an IPA." And when you take in a Bulls game, the brewery's Bullpen Pale Ale is a flavorful alternative at the stadium.
Bull City Burger and Brewery founder Seth Gross reports that his biggest sellers as the temperature climbs are the golden ale and the pale ale—both low in alcohol but high in taste. Like every beer at the brewpub, these are named in tribute to its home city. Bryant Bridge Gateway Ale, with its peach and citrus notes and delicate finish, takes its name from the LED-lit bridge that welcomes drivers to Durham. Parrish Street Pale Ale, with more caramel and orange zest tones, honors the downtown street where the brewpub is located.
Clearly, summertime is the season for brews with a light, fresh touch and low-alcohol drinkability ... unless you're Durham's Triangle Brewing Co. in search of a beer to celebrate your fourth anniversary. Turning the season's logic on its head, the brewery is resurrecting Big Arse Amber, an imperial amber ale with hefty malt notes and assertive bitterness from the multiple hop additions. Sounds like the perfect post-pig-picking sipper for a summer night.
And another brewery is marking its anniversary in imperial style. Last weekend, the Carolina Brewing Co. of Holly Springs observed its 16th year with a get-together at the very first bar to carry its beer, 42nd St. Oyster Bar in Raleigh. To mark the event, the brewery has created an imperial India pale ale: another unlikely beer for July, but an appropriate salute for our oldest local. The limited-production IIPA is available on draft and in bottles from the brewery only if you're quick.
Summer beer selections can be as varied as the occasions of summer. Whether you're grilling in the backyard, taking in a ball game or snoozing at the pool, there's a lively beer choice to match.