Osburn On Tap: What the heck is a summer ale?

Osburn On Tap“If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet it makes beer shoot out your nose.” – Jack Handy

Summer ale or summer beer? What does it matter what we call them? Is there a difference? As is the same with most beer styles, arguments abound on the topic. In my humble opinion, there really is no difference, but some people will tell you that summer ale is pretty much the same thing as a wheat beer, but with a snazzy sounding name that tells you what time of year you should drink it. As if we need the help.
Osburn On Tap

Experts on the subject will most likely tell you that there is no clear definition of summer beer. It doesn’t necessarily mean a style inasmuch as it means specifically the time of year that a brew should be enjoyed. Just because the Boston Beer Company makes a beer called Samuel Adams Summer Ale, which happens to be a wheat beer, it doesn’t technically mean that the term is set in proverbial stone. A summer beer can be any beer style that you enjoy during the summer months, whether you are lounging out in the sun, enjoying a barbeque with friends, or watching a baseball game on an HDTV in a dark air-conditioned room.

Still others, like some in New Zealand, have even fought about what in fact summer ale is and who has ownership of the term. Last year, the two biggest breweries in this small Pacific Rim country got into quite a quarrel about the name and its usage. Dominion Breweries sued rival Lion Breweries because they came out with a beer called Mac’s Sundance Summer Ale, when Dominion already had a beer called Monteith’s Summer Ale that they had been producing for almost ten years. The fight happened because Dominion claimed that they had exclusive ownership of the name “Summer Ale” and didn’t want Lion to be able to use it. Dominion had attempted to trademark the term years earlier but was denied their request.

Obviously Dominion lost the court case, due in large part to the fact that breweries all over the world have been making summer ales and summer style beers for decades. “DB has no right to exclusive protection of a generic phrase unless there is proof of deception,” said the presiding judge. You can’t trademark something that everyone else is already doing.

So there you go, a court ruling proving that “Summer Ale” is a rather general phrase used to describe any beer that is to be consumed in the summer. It’s fairly obvious that you most likely wouldn’t enjoy drinking a Porter while you attempt to tan by the pool. On the other hand, I had an Oktoberfest style beer a few nights ago and it was mighty tasty regardless of the fact that it was 90 degrees and muggy outside. Also, this doesn’t mean that you can’t drink a summer beer in the middle of winter. We all know that I like to buck tradition whenever possible–especially in the beer world. If you somehow still have some lying around in February, give them a whirl. I doubt you will though.

Since this month I don’t want to anger the beer gods as much as in prior columns, I’ll point out the fact that it is true that many of the craft brewed summer ales and summer beers available actually happen to be wheat beers. This style just lends itself best to the summer months. Brews like the aforementioned Samuel Adams Summer Ale (5.2% ABV) and Anchor Steam Brewing Company’s Summer Beer (4.6% ABV) fall into this category. Once again, like I mentioned last month, it’s up to you whether or not you add a citrus fruit into the mix.

Just as I stated earlier, that doesn’t mean that all summer beers are wheat beers, though. Since I spent all of last month’s article talking about wheat beers, I figured I’d go in a different direction anyway. Nobody likes a redundant columnist.

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston’s Summer Beer (5% ABV) is brewed in the German Kolsch style. It is brewed with ale yeast, yet it is very similar to lager beers. This Kolsch is golden in color and light and crisp in flavor, like biting into a fresh apple. Harpoon Summer Beer is perfect for a sunny afternoon playing croquet in your back yard.

The Shipyard Brewing Company’s Summer Ale (5.1% ABV) is an American Pale Ale. Like many APA’s, this beer has a light golden, almost straw color, with hints of red and orange throughout. It has a very refreshing, bready flavor with a nice hoppy, bitter finish. This summery beer is very thirst quenching on a hot day and a perfect accompaniment to a few sweaty hours spent mowing the lawn.

There are many other brews with the title “summer ale” or “summer beer,” as well as countless styles that complement the warmer climate. Just find a beer that suits you in this warmer time of year. Whether it is a wheat beer, pale ale, pilsner, saison, Flemish sour ale, or even a stout, is up to you. The great thing about beer is that it really is mostly about taste. Everyone has different tastes and opinions. Just don’t stick to the same old watery “lite” beers. Try one of the thousands of craft beers available in the U.S.

All in all, it’s summer now, so it’s best not to worry about semantics and just enjoy the beautiful weather while it lasts. Go ahead and drink whatever you want. If drinking a Rodenbach Grand Cru while playing washers in your side yard appeals to you, do it. It’s a summer ale as long as you drink it in the summer. Lucky for us, summer officially began on June 21st. I guess we should do our best and imbibe a summer beer or two. In Ireland, summer started on May 1st, so we have some catching up to do

“Osburn on Tap” appears monthly in THE FATHER LIFE. For questions, comments, or if you have a story idea for Chris, visit his website http://www.chrisosburnwrites.com.

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