Summer beers arrive in Maine well before summer does. Most were in stores and on tap by early May, which begs the question: local breweries make summer, autumnal and winter beers, but none to coincide with spring. Why not?
When I asked Shipyard master brewer Alan Pugsley this question, he grinned slyly and posed one to me: “What is spring in Maine, anyways?”
Good point. A month or two of mud and piles of dirty snow hardly constitutes a season to celebrate. So while the rest of us were chopping ice in the driveway, Maine brewers were crafting copious amounts of light, refreshing ale. You won’t be surprised to know Mainers consume more beer during the summer months than during any other time of year.
So what makes a summer beer a summer beer? Can’t any beer be a summer beer if you drink it in July? It turns out it’s not that easy.
The long, strange history of beer tells us seasonal varieties have been brewed for summer consumption since the 15th century. Back in the early days, before refrigeration and the idea of paid time off, these beers were brewed light in color, texture and alcohol content to provide refreshment. I guess people worked outside a lot back then and needed something besides tepid stream water to provide relief from the heat. Lucky them.
Beer drinking is more recreational these days, but Maine brewers still adhere to the idea that summer beers should be light-bodied and less filling than their winter counterparts. Almost every local brewery produces a summertime variety, and though some look similar, they do vary in style and taste, so put down that silver can and try ’em all before the flurries fly again.
Geary’s Summer Ale – A Kölsch-style beer should be light and refreshing, and this one is exactly that. There is some malt sweetness with some hop bitterness in the finish. This is the light-bodied beer you want in the fridge when you’ve got yard work to do or you’re having a barbecue and don’t know what your friends like to drink. Good stuff.
Allagash White – This is actually available year-round, but I figure most people equate it with warm, sunny days by the water. Cloudy and hazy in appearance, the White is a Belgian-style wit ale brewed with spices like orange peel and coriander. Of all the Allagash beers, this is the most refreshing on a hot day. It’s also a great local alternative to Blue Moon (which is brewed by Coors, I’m sorry to say).
Note: If you see it, grab some Allagash Black, too. It’s an incredible Belgian-style stout available in bottles and on tap. Mix the Black and White together and see what happens – but don’t tell anyone I told you.
Gritty McDuff’s Vacationland – The label on these bottles surely draws in the tourists. Nothing says, “Honey, let’s bring back a six-pack for the neighbors!” like a moose and a lighthouse! Gritty’s calls their summer beer an “Extra Special Golden Ale.” It’s a smooth-drinking beer with a hint of wheat and malt sweetness. Vacationland is brewed with Cascade hops for a nice floral aroma and a slight citrus-y finish. Weighing in at less than 5% alcohol, it’s a great beer for a long summer day (or night).
Note: It’s definitely worth stopping by one of Gritty’s brew pubs for a pint poured straight from the cask. The cask version of Vacationland gets my vote this year for best summer beer in Portland.
Shipyard Summer Ale – Maine’s largest brewery is obviously not going to miss the summer beer party, but they may have rushed to get there. Shipyard Summer is a very light-flavored, golden-hued ale. They say it’s an American Wheat Ale, but it doesn’t come across like a wheat beer to me. It has a faint syrupy sweetness and is very dry in the finish. Lacking real character, SSA is not my personal favorite among the local summer offerings.
Andrew’s Summer Golden Ale –The Summer Golden Ale is extremely light in color, with a slight head and a medium amount of carbonation. The taste is slightly bitter and astringent, with very little sweetness, and the finish is very dry – not a desirable quality when your throat is parched. I prefer a little more malt sweetness in a blonde ale. This ale reminds me of a light lager.
Note: Andrew’s is a one-man operation in the small town of Lincolnville. If you run a brewery by yourself, you are truly an inspiration to us all.
Casco Bay Summer Ale – This ale is juicy and fruity, with a slightly bitter hop finish. A well-balanced blonde, it has a crisp bite to it (sort of like the experience of biting into an apple). It was sad to see this microbrewery lose its independence (the original ownership group sold out to Shipyard), but their beers seem to still be holding their own in spirit, if nothing else. Not a bad beer whatsoever.
— Russ Phillips