For beer lovers, this expanding seasonal choice is a nice problem to have. But it begs some questions: What makes for a great summer brew? What traditions are behind these seasonals? And what foods work best with these beers?
Ideally, great summer beers should be crisp, refreshing, and food-friendly, with light to medium body and moderate alcohol, yet still be packed with aroma and flavor. Various beer types qualify, but the best summer "models" tend to hail from Germany and Belgium, two centers of brewing excellence. And for quality summer quaffing, no style outshines the wheat-based brews from these two beer-loving countries.
Most beers are made with at least some malted barley, for practical reasons. With a hard husk and relative lack of glutens, barley performs poorly in the bakery but ideally for malting and beer brewing. Wheat is the exact opposite: The grain has no encasement and it's rich in glutens and other proteins useful in bread-making, but it tends to gum up the brewing process. In fact, it's almost impossible to make beer solely from wheat.
In the Middle Ages, when all beer production was "micro," farmer-brewers rarely had the luxury to choose which grain to use, they simply employed what was available. In southern Germany and present-day Belgium, wheat was part of the mix. Through trial and error, it was discovered that including a proportion of wheat in the mash leads to a highly desirable beverage, a lighter-bodied beer with refreshing, thirst-quenching acidity. And so, a great beer style for the hot weather evolved.
Because of the paler color and yeasty haze of these ales (yes, they are technically ales, made with top-fermenting yeast), especially compared with the darker beers, people called them "white" beers —witbier or bière blanche in Belgium, and Weissbier in Germany.
KEEP YOUR WIT
A true holdover from the spice trade era (15th and 16th centuries), the Belgian witbier is brewed from malted barley and raw wheat, and spiced (mostly) with coriander and Curaçao bitter orange peel. Hops come into play nowadays, but subtly. A bright, refreshing style that almost died out after WWII, this hazy, pale yellow-gold beer has made a big comeback in its homeland and has a bevy of sincere imitators in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even Coors Brewing Company puts out a Belgian-style white under the Blue Moon label. An excellent Belgian prototype widely available is Hoegaarden.
Go to any outdoor café or Biergarten in Bavaria during the warm weather, and you'll find scores of tall, slender glasses used solely for Weissbier on the picnic-style tables, bearing insignias from breweries like Schneider, Franziskaner, and Weihenstephaner (the "world's oldest brewery" — since 1040!). While there are various styles of Weiss or Weizen (wheat), including the oxymoronic Dunkelweiss (literally "dark white"), the Hefeweizen ("yeast-wheat") is the choice for the summer.
As the name indicates, this "bottle-conditioned" beer contains unfiltered yeast sediment — accounting for the cloudy appearance — and full flavor. Most Hefes are brewed with at least 50 percent malted wheat and are delicately hopped with aromatic, citric strains. Unlike their Belgian colleagues, however, German brewers still observe the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, meaning that spices and other flavorings (besides hops) are verboten in the brewing process. And yet, the orangeish, thick-headed Hefes are often chock-full of amazing fruity and spicy elements, ranging from fresh apples, banana, and Juicy Fruit gum to cloves and nutmeg. The responsible agent: ancient strains of yeast, enhancing the naturally fruity arc of the wheat.
These beers are arguably best on a hot day after a workout — extremely restorative. They are fantastic food companions too, with slightly more heft than the Belgian witbier. Fruity, spicy, and geyserlike in carbonation, Hefes are second to none with spicy ethnic foods, especially Mexican, Chinese, and Indian, which have their share of fats and oils to cut through.