Summer is the most beer-friendly time of the year. Never mind that there are fall beers, winter beers and spring beers matched to their own seasons: The beverage most people think of when they think beer is pale, straw-colored and fizzy, with nothing that lingers except a sense of refreshment. For the steamy days ahead, that's about all we want.
But for beer drinkers who want variety in their summer fare, a number of other styles are equally suited to the hot months. These styles have in common with the mainstream brews their lighter body and refreshing character, but they make for an interesting change.
American mainstream lager originates in the pale lagers of Germany, Austria and the modern Czech Republic. The pilsner style, which takes its name from Pilzn in Czech Republic, was a revelation when it debuted in 1842. With glassware widely affordable for the first time, the drinking public could admire the sheer beauty of the beer, and soon brewers throughout Europe copied it. Pilsner has a wonderful floral aroma from the Saaz variety of hops. The flavor is soft and balanced; bitter, but not overpowering. Try the Czech imports—Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen or Czechvar—or one of the excellent American-made pilsner styles from Trumer or Victory.
Bavarian brewers responded to the Czech challenge with their own eye-dazzling, delicate beer: the helles style. Helles means "bright" or "light," and this beer should be both, but malt-accented where the pilsner is floral. Aying Brewery produces a wonderful helles in its Jahrhundertbier. Weihenstephaner Original is another delicious helles, although it's oddly named: Weihenstephan is the oldest operating brewery in the world, established in 1040, so it must have brewed another "original" beer for its first 800 years.
For more unusual flavors, look to the ales of Belgium and northern France. Bière de garde is malty, spicy and woody; the saison style tends to be earthy and hoppier. Both are complex styles that can stand up to heartier summer foods from the grill. These are two of the most versatile beer styles to pair with a meal, period. To try bière de garde, look for Jenlain or St. Amand. Imported saison selections include Saison Dupont, Moinette or La Foret, but domestically produced Hennepin from Ommegang in New York is hard to beat.
The "W" beers
Weizen, weiss, weisse, wit: These "W" beers are brewed with wheat in addition to the barley that is the classic grain in all beer. Wheat contributes a light, slightly tart lift to the beer, which is wonderfully refreshing in hot weather.
The German wheat beers are known as weizen (meaning wheat) or weiss/ weisse (meaning white), with the terms used almost interchangeably. The most popular versions are hefeweizen, meaning the yeast (hefe) has not been filtered out and can be seen in cloudy suspension. The traditional yeast strain adds distinctive notes of banana and clove to these thirst-quenching beers. In Bavaria, tall glasses of hefeweizen are served with soft pretzels and weisswurst—mild white sausage—as a late-morning snack.
A dunkelweizen is a dark variation of the hefe, with dark grains adding roasted and caramel notes.
If the wheat beer is filtered, it becomes a kristallweizen, which is sparking clear, without much of the spicy character of the hefeweizen (and, frankly, not as interesting). Look for imports from Schneider, the brewery that rejuvenated wheat beers in the 19th century, or Franziskaner from Munich.
Some American-made wheat beers, such as those brewed by Tabernash or Brooklyn, reproduce the clove and banana flavors. Other brewers, fearing that American drinkers would shy away from those startling tastes, created the "American-style" wheat beer—again, pleasant, but not too different from a standard beer. If you want refreshment without the bananas, look for North Coast's Blue Star, or Widmer Hefeweizen.
Finally, the Belgians, who can always be counted on for unique brewing twists, give us wit (white) beer, a cloudy treat spiced with coriander and Curaçao. The Belgian classic is Hoegaarden; North American interpretations include Allagash White or Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue in Quebec. They are wonderful with brunch late on a summer morning.
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.