The Contrarian's Guide to Summer Beer

“Light” and “refreshing” are how most drinkers think of warm weather beers, but straight through baseball season, breweries continue to produce plenty of more interesting brews with backbone. Aaron Goldbarb on the joys of eschewing the summer stereotype

Summer Beer
Warm weather beer should still have a backbone.Matt Taylor-Gross

Inevitably, when summer rolls around, people start asking me for beer recommendations. This doesn’t happen during any other season.

"What are your favorite spring ales?" is not, for example, a common question. "Summer beer" is not an officially recognized style—neither according to the Beer Judge Certification Program nor the Great American Beer Festival—but ask an average Jane or Joe Sixpack what defines this unofficial category and you'll get the same descriptors.

If this were Family Feud, the board’s top answer would be “light,” which could refer to color, ABV, or viscosity. It would likewise be “drinkable,” as opposed to other beers that don’t get down one’s throat quite rapidly enough. Other answers might be “refreshing,” or “fruity” or, best of all, “ice cold.” These adjectives, taken in concert, would leave us with a bunch of thin, fizzy, sometimes citrusy, sweaty-label offerings, which are none too interesting.

Me? I like to drink well, whether in the dog days of summer or the dead of winter. Yet every summer we’re told to drink dull, watered-down, low-ABV beers. Why is it, only in the beer world, bastardizing drinking habits has somehow become a necessity? Wine connoisseurs don’t switch to industrialized prosecco come Memorial Day. Bourbon geeks don’t suddenly start drinking “lighter” more “refreshing” whiskey once June arrives. (At most, they add a little more ice to make the sardonically dubbed “Kentucky tea.”) So what’s so wrong with drinking a flavor-packed 10% ABV brew once temperatures crack triple digits?

Luckily, breweries are here to help. Sure, most of them may release a “summer ale”—which is usually one of their best-selling, least-acclaimed bottlings—yet many continue to crank out imperial stouts, strong ales, and barleywines straight through baseball season. There’s something to be said for sipping one bottle of something great than pounding a whole case of something so-so.

"Folks want their boozy beers and we happily provide them all damn year long," Jemma Wilson of Firestone Walker says. Firestone will release several boozy beers this summer like Helldorado, a barleywine which happily ignores summer with its rich, dessert-like, liqueur flavors, and comes in a large-format bottle to boot. Try fitting that into your koozie. Along with Helldorado, here are seven other contrarian summer beers which, like the goth kid at the beach, may seem awkward and out of place, but are quite amicable at close range.

8 Contrarian Summer Beers Worth Seeking Out

Avery Certatio Equestris | Sour Ale, 8.9% ABV

Boulder's cold nights must predispose Avery Brewing Co. to releasing higher-proof bottlings, with beers like Uncle Jacob’s Stout and Tweak both topping 17%. This high-proof mindset doesn’t change for summer. This May, they released Xolotl, a 13.7% Mexican stout, and their latest bottle, a Certatio Equestris that hits 8.9%. A sour ale aged in bourbon barrels with macerating spearmint, it’s meant to mimic the refreshing yet sneakily potent mint julep.

Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation | Imperial Stout, 14.3% ABV

My favorite beer of 2015 was this imperial stout—not totally original by any means, just the most flawlessly-executed vanilla stout I’ve come across. A beer blended with Madagascar vanilla beans before aging in bourbon barrels, it makes a triumphant return later this month with a limited release of a few thousand bottles. Located just down the street from Disneyland, in Anaheim, a stop at Bottle Logic Brewing is a much better (and cheaper) family excursion than visiting the Magic Kingdom.

Boulevard Rye on Rye X Sazerac | Rye Beer, 11.8% ABV

For a brewery whose best-selling beer is the light and refreshing Unfiltered Wheat, Kansas City’s Boulevard ain’t scared to up the ante during the warmer months. Their best beer, the wonderfully funky Saison Brett, sounds like the perfect early summer offering, but is unusually boozy for the style at 8.5%. And, this August, Boulevard will release the latest variant in their Rye on Rye X Series. A rye beer aged in whiskey barrels with lemon peel and a spice blend meant to impersonate the anise notes of absinthe, Sazerac is meant to taste like—yeah, you guessed it.

Evil Twin Imperial Biscotti Break | Imperial Stout, 11.5% ABV

Canned beer is meant for summertime; you can lug it to the beach, chug it at a picnic, secret it inside a brown bag while strolling the streets. But most people don’t expect a canned beer to be a double-digit coffee stout. Such is Brooklyn gypsy brewer Evil Twin’s long beloved cookie-like stout just released for the first time in “pounder” can format. With more coffee roasters now canning their cold brew, turnabout is fair play. Just don’t add cream or Splenda.

Firestone Walker Helldorado | Barleywine, 12% ABV

Located in hot-as-hell Paso Robles, California, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. counter-intuitively produces a portfolio packed with stouts and strong ales. This will be the second straight July they’ll release Helldorado, a honey-infused, whiskey-barrel aged edition. Unexpectedly pale in color, it’s called a “blonde” barleywine, which will trick people into assuming you’re not glugging a massive booze-bomb at the company picnic.

Golden Road Wolf Mother | Triple IPA, 11.5% ABV

By now, IPA is the definitive style of craft beer, capturing a good quarter of the market. Yet, come summer, most folks switch to low-ABV “session” IPAs, which mostly taste like hoppy water. Which makes it all the more gratifying to see Golden Release come to market with this full-bodied hop monster. Thick and boozy, sticky and slightly syrupy, and packaged in 19.2-ounce “bomber” cans, Wolf Mother is pretty much designed for sneaking into concerts, festivals, or any place serving strictly “summer” beer.

The Bruery Share This | Imperial Stout, 11.9% ABV

“Let’s move beyond the concept of grabbing a beer, and reach for something bigger,” reads the marketing patter for this brew. A fitting sentiment perhaps, as this imperial stout made with coffee from the Philippines, will get you more amped up and ready to go than that Almond Joy Iced Coffee from Dunkin’. Yet another SoCal brewery not afraid to get boozy, Share This will be shared by The Bruery this month.

Victory Tart Ten | Dubbel, 10% ABV

Most famous for their iconic Prima Pils, you’d probably be surprised to know that Victory’s best-selling beer is actually the boozy Belgian tripel Golden Monkey. This summer, these Philadelphia area brewers will release their dubbel ale fermented with the wild yeast known as Brettanomyces. “Brett” makes the usually sweet style funkier, tart and fruity even, and the added fizziness renders the double-digit dubbel surprisingly light, drinkable, and, yes, even refreshing.

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