The perfect summer beer has a lot in common with the perfect summer sundress. It’s crisp, it helps keep you cool, and you can find one that suits anything from a casual backyard barbecue to a more upscale evening. It all depends on what you pair it with.

By now, you may be doing a doubletake. Beer? Really?

Yes, really. If your mental picture of beer involves the tasteless, fizzy yellow stuff that guys drink at baseball games, you’re in for a surprising, nuanced taste treat. Over the past several years a craft beer movement has emerged, with locally based brewers turning out beer in small, conscientiously nurtured batches. Craft brewers select specific varieties of hops and barley malts, even specific strains of yeast, to create complex taste profiles for their brews.

Just like wine, good beer is ideal to sip and consider, and to pair with some of your favorite foods.

There might even be health benefits. For instance, a malty brew like Guinness Stout is high in antioxidants—the very virtue so often touted for red wine. And earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture suggested that the relatively high level of the mineral silicon in beer may foster bone health by helping calcium absorption.

Your Beer Palate

Before we look at great beers for summer cookouts, let’s talk beer basics, and how to find brews that taste good to you.

At its most basic, beer is a fermented combination of grain (barley malt), water, yeast, and hops. Different styles of beer run along a spectrum from malty to hoppy.

If you love the taste of black coffee, dark chocolate, and rich red wine, most likely you’ll enjoy a beer that is maltier, like a dark ale, porter, or stout. Guinness, one of the more famous stouts, is so rich and weighty it’s often described as a meal in a glass. The flavors you taste in a stout or a porter might be robust, smoky or coffee-like. Some porters are sweet enough to pair with, or even be, dessert. Although the hottest day might make a porter or stout too heavy for a backyard barbecue, in the cool of a summer evening they can be delicious paired with a hearty burger, steak, or lamb.

On the other end of the taste spectrum, a very hoppy beer can taste bitter—a pleasing taste for some palates. Or you might describe the flavor as grassy, astringent, or peppery. Pale ales and IPAs (India Pale Ales) tend to be hoppier beers. Some of the hoppiest can be a challenge: Victory Brewing Company’s Hop Wallop, for instance, is aptly named. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA is another bitter, hoppy beer. Green Flash IPA, a West Coast beer, is so intensely hopped it might pucker your mouth as if you’d just eaten a lemon.

Intense hoppiness is an extreme taste, but it can also be a great companion for spicy foods or a balance to rich dishes. An IPA offsets the heat of a spice-rubbed chicken or flank steak on the grill or the richness of creamy potato salad. But its taste can be even more versatile. If you’re throwing a fish on the grill with some vegetables, you might want to try an IPA with it.

In the mid-range of the taste spectrum, between hoppy-bitter and malty rich-sweet, there’s a  range of refreshing tastes to discover. Some good types to look out for are:

  • Ales, a style that includes a wide range of beer tastes and colors, from the malty-sweet Abita Turbodog brown ale, to the bite of hoppy pale ales like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
  • Wheat beers, which are cloudy yellow in color and sometimes a little sweet. Blue Moon is easy to find, and is tasty with a slice of orange thrown in . Hoegaarden is a popular imported German wheat beer.
  • Lagers range from amber, like Brooklyn lager, to the light and refreshing Mexican favorite Corona, which is great with a squeeze of lime. Or try Trader Jose’s, the Trader Joe’s version of a Corona style lager.

And then there are the summer ales, the brewers’ ode to the golden days.

Summer Ales

Generally on sale during the warmer months, summer ales are designed to be refreshing. They’re milder-tasting beers, tending toward the middle-to-hoppy side of the flavor spectrum. Often brightened with honey or citrus, they taste like summer poured into a glass. On a hot day, they can be simply terrific.

A number of breweries make excellent summer ales. If you like a bitter touch of hops, try Sierra Nevada’s summer ale—its taste is almost piney. Sam Adams’ summer ale has a gentle flavor of lemon peel, making it delicious with grilled or fried chicken, shrimp or fish.

Brooklyn Brewery’s summer ale is deliciously tangy, almost as if they’d added a squeeze of lemon juice while they were bottling it. Try it with a gazpacho or fish tacos.

Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s summer ale is sweetened with just a touch of honey. To buy it, you have to visit the brewery itself, on the North Fork of Long Island—not a bad summer outing. Its smooth, sunny taste pairs wonderfully with everything from lobster to chicken cutlets. On another note, Smuttynose Summer Weizen will surprise you with its delicate floral taste—the brewers add chamomile flowers at the end of the brewing process.

Women-Made Beers

Is the brewing scene a guys-only club? In a word: nope!

Although many brewers are men, there is a thriving community of women in the beer industry. After all, in medieval times brewers were traditionally women.

Carol Stoudt (right), founder of Pennsylvania’s Stoudt Brewing Company, proved herself as a successful brewer after her children were in school. Stoudt’s has a number of great summer beers, including Stoudt’s Pils and American Pale Ale—worth trying at your next cookout.

Harlem Brewing Company, founded by Celeste Beatty, is headquartered here in New York City. Their Golden Ale, light-bodied with a bit of a nutty depth to it, is great with pecan-crusted anything. If you’re stuck inside on a rainy summer evening, try it with this fish recipe.

WVFC wants to know: What’s your favorite summer beer? Are you a beer drinker, a craft beer enthusiast? And for the gluten-intolerant: any opinions on sorghum beers? Leave us a note in the comments, and let the beer conversation roll on.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Chef E June 21, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Elizabeth, loved this piece, I linked it to my posting today-

    Keep ’em coming!

    I too am now a full blown beer lover…

  • Adrian Miller June 17, 2010 at 7:17 am

    Oh my gosh, the very image of Pat Allen bellying up to the bar is totally mind-blowing:)

    FYI, you can enjoy your baseball with champagne and good food courtesy of Danny Meyer at Citifield.

    As for Pete. Heck, welcome back.

    Gambling and boozing, steroids and recreational drugs, carrying guns (into a club for god’s sake) and so many more tales of poor behavior in the news on a regular basis. Our athletes are revered as the Gods they are not, pampered from childhood on because they can hit a ball, sink a basket or whatever and it is our society that puts them on that pedestal and keeps them there because at the end of the day they are a money making machine.

    Welcome back Pete:)

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen June 16, 2010 at 9:03 am

    As many of my friends know, I am not a proponent of elbow bending or bellying up to the bar as a way of life.

    But there is nothing better in the summer than a cold beer with some nitrate filled hotdog and a baseball game, especially if Pete Rose (God love him and his weaknesses) were up to bat. He does hold the all time record for hits and given the steroid driven cheaters who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame it is now time for us to bring Pete home. It must be clear that the Reds were always my team.

    This of course is written without benefit of booze!

  • Rebecca June 15, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Ms. Willse clearly knows her craft beers. I would strongly urge ladies on the west coast to consider the beers of the Deschutes Brewing Company. I live in New York but miss the craft beer of home. I am perhaps the least prone to nostalgia or homestate pride out of all my friends, so I say with complete objectivity: DARN GOOD BEER. Unfortunately, it is hard to find east of the Rockies.