This time of year, whether you’re eyeing the draft list at your favorite local bar or wandering through the beer aisle at the grocery store, you’re likely to encounter plenty of seasonal brews that have been branded “summer ales.” But while you probably know what you’re looking for in a beer during these hot summer months — something light that’ll quench your thirst and pair perfectly with ballgames, cookouts and beach days — what is it exactly that makes a beer a summer ale?
While most other styles have clear, strict definitions, “summer ale” is more of a vague umbrella term, something more nebulous that craft beer fans and brewers alike know when they see but can’t quite pin down. There are plenty of more specific styles that tend to enjoy summertime popularity and therefore get trotted out this time of year by breweries as seasonal offerings — like goses, hefeweizens, kölschs, session IPAs, sours and fruit beers, to name a few — and the summer ale has become more elusive in recent years thanks to the rise of hard seltzer and other light, low-calorie options for those looking to maintain their beach bod. It can be traced back to 1984, when Anchor first introduced its Summer Beer — a cleaner, crisper, Americanized version of the German hefeweizen.The Brewer’s Association offers guidelines for an English-style summer ale, but in truth, these days “summer ale” refers to any low-ABV beer, many of which often have a strong citrus flavor (whether its simulated via citrusy hops or the result of actual added citrus fruits). Some are pale ales and some are blonde ales, but they’re all generally light, not overly bitter or hoppy, and specifically designed to keep you feeling cool and refreshed on a hot day.
We’ve celebrated other summer beer styles in the past and even asked some of our favorite craft beer professionals to tell us what they prefer to drink on the hottest day of the year, but this summer, we’re paying homage to this classic-but-confusing category by picking out a few of our favorite examples of the style. Put down the White Claw and join us in raising a glass to them below.
Most craft beer fans are already familiar with this one, for good reason — it’s the gold standard of summer seasonals. The Michigan-based brewery ferments Oberon with its own signature house ale yeast, and the result is a crisp, refreshing brew that achieves the perfect balance between malty sweetness and hoppiness. Over the years, it has spawned several fruited variants — including the limited-release Tropical Oberon brewed with mango, passionfruit and pink guava — but if you ask us, there’s no beating the original.
Brooklyn Summer Ale
This English-style pale ale is light and sessionable — exactly what you want for outdoor drinking on a hot summer day. It’s got a grainy sweetness to it along with some floral hop flavors and a hint of lemon zestiness. Overall, it’s a pretty straightforward summer offering, in the best possible way; it’s a well-executed example of the style that you can easily throw back several of at your next pool party or backyard barbecue.
Sam Adams Summer Ale
In 2019, Sam Adams reformulated the recipe for their beloved Summer Ale for the first time in 23 years, boosting its citrus profile by adding pureed oranges, limes and lemons and scaling back some of its spice notes (save for grains of paradise, which are still present). The result is an extremely drinkable beer with a nice balance of fruitiness and a very slight kick — a nice new twist on a classic summertime offering.
Shipyard Summer Ale
As you can probably tell from its excellent can design, Shipyard’s Summer Ale pairs perfectly with lobster. It’s a crisp, malty traditional American wheat beer with just a hint of hop bitterness for balance. There’s also a trace of lemony citrus flavors, making it perfect for those summertime seafood dinners (in the brewery’s native Maine, or wherever you happen to be).
Uinta Brewing Sum’r
We don’t necessarily think of summer when we think of Salt Lake City, but this Utah-based brewery’s warm-weather seasonal is a nice reminder that there’s more to the area than skiing. It’s an American blonde ale, brewed with Sterling and Opal hops, and you’ll get a whiff of florals and lemon on the nose. It’s smooth, with a slight grassy flavor — the perfect reward for when you’ve just finished mowing the lawn.
Montauk Summer Ale
If you’ve got any plans to spend a day out on a boat at some point this summer, make sure you’ve got some of these packed in your cooler. Montauk’s popular Summer Ale is a clean, bright and easy-drinking pale ale with a caramel maltiness and a slightly bitter finish to it; you’ll definitely be able to drink several of these without any problems, but at 5.6% ABV, it’s just a tad boozier than most other summer ales.
Victory Summer Love
Victory’s well-loved seasonal golden ale is perfect for a baseball game (and, in fact, you can find it inside several MLB ballparks). It’s got some lemony hop notes to it along with a trace of pine thanks to its mix of pilsner malts and Simcoe and Tettnang hops. The brewery also recently recalibrated their recipe to dial back the bitterness, meaning it’s now more sessionable than ever.
Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale
Does Twilight Summer Ale call to mind that glorious time on a hot summer night where the sun begins to set, the heat finally begins to break and you decide to celebrate by enjoying a cold one on your porch because of its name, or is named that because it’s so perfect for that scenario? It’s hard to say, but what we do know is this seasonal blonde ale is an ideal summer brew. It’s got plenty of citrus on the nose and a nice cereal/bready malt base to it that’s balanced nicely with faint hop presence.
Blue Point Summer Ale
At just 4.5% ABV, Blue Point’s summer seasonal is light, refreshing, and easily crushable. That alone makes it a solid choice for any picnic, cookout or other summertime day-drinking opportunity, but it’s got a pleasant flavor as well. It’s pretty typical of what you’d expect from a blonde ale, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring; why mess with a good thing?
Five Boroughs Summer Ale
New York City’s Five Boroughs Brewing’s summer seasonal is a blonde ale brewed with Mosaic, Cascade and Centennial hops, and it’s got a strong citrus flavor to it — grapefruit comes through the loudest — that almost gives it a radler-like taste. However, the citrus is never overpowering, and it’s balanced by caramel malt and both some floral and herbal undertones.
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