Fruity Summer Beers — Part of the Expanding American Palate

Despite the summer heat continuing to burn, summer beers are fast disappearing from our shelves. If there were a brewer’s almanac, perhaps we’d still have plenty of stock, but instead, pumpkin ales are already showing up on the backroom shelves of Binny’s and smaller retailers. And some of my favorite summer brews, like Shiner’s Ruby Redbird, are fast becoming a hazy memory.

But this year’s been more ambitious than most in terms of fruity summer brews. Where previous summers have been diverse in terms of IPAs and pales, this year I saw an explosion in fruity adjuncts and malt liquors aiming to refresh us with tart, sweet, light recipes that you can drink even on the hottest days. But with so many new brews on the market, I felt it was time to highlight the many different flavor profiles newly available to our palates, and compare them to some traditional standbys.

I had the chance to talk to Alan Newman, former co-founder of Magic Hat Brewing, and newly appointed head of Boston Beer Co’sAlchemy & Science division about what’s happening with these types of brews and where he sees the opportunity for his group’s first release, Curious Traveller Shandy.

Made in the tradition of European shandies, the Curious Traveller takes an all-season approach to their unique flavor profile. Certainly, there is a traditional bitter lemon flavor with a nice sugared fizz, but two major differences set this shandy apart — a wheat beer base and the addition of lime.

“I just asked: ‘Can we make something that I can drink?’ Quite frankly, most of the pre-bottled shandys I can’t drink. And it proved to be far more difficult than expected. They key really was going with a true craft wheat beer base, and then putting in real lemon. What really pulls the whole thing together was adding just a hint of lime. It creaes a tartness that overcomes the sweetness of the lemon and balances it out. I can sit and go through two or three of them before I even notice.”

The result is something along the lines of a Pim’s cup concoction that’s far more sophisticated for the American craft beer palate, and perhaps transcens the artificial seasonality of other shandies. And for Newman, the palate is what it’s all about.

“Craft beer is part of a bigger trend. Craft beer is not just about beer, it’s about the changing taste profile of the American public. 20-30 years ago there were no ethnic restaurants in America. We were meat and potatoes as a country. Now there’s no town in American that doesn’t have ethnic foods. A dozen different Asian styles, 10 version sof Indian foods and Italian. Local bakeries have come back to get flavor back into bread. Craft beer to me has nothing to do with beer, it’s just the trend that’s been happenign to the American palate is now hitting beer. People want to explore the fascinating flavors you can get out of different malts, out of different hops. I think it’s fabulous.”

Alan sees the sudden surge of fruit-based summer beers as part of reaction to aggresive hop profiles and boozy imperials. Summer beers are suppose to be easy and refreshing, and this year’s swing back to such sessionable brews seem appropriate.

“For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I think even the staunchest of IPA fans will admit that they’ve gotten out of control. When Magic Hat first tarted, we used the concept of balance as the driver for our beers. We did an IPA back in ‘95 on the East coast called Blind Faith and we were at about 38IBUs and that was on the border of being too hoppy. Ten years later, you’d get laughed out of the store. Before the hop craze, beer was about different flavors and about a wide range of flavor profiles, but over the last couple of years it become only about hops — how much hop can you shove into the bottle, and how much alchohol can you shove into the bottle. Hops will always be a big part of beer, but I think we’re going to go on a different run for a couple of years. Hopheads are some of our best customers. They’re still gonna have their 70IBU beers, but after one or two, you know, they’ll try somethign that doesnt wipe out their palate.”

So why make a shandy first out of the gate at Alchemy & Science? Well, this isn’t Alan’s first attempt at a better shandy. At Magic Hat, they made several attempts and never quite got what they were looking for.

“I don’t know what other people do. But the problem we had at Magic Hat about 20 years ago was that we kept trying to start with a kind of amber ale, because in Europe it’s usually mixed with an amber ale or an amber lager. We just couldn’t get the balance right. At House of Shandy, switching to a wheat beer base really seeemed to bring the project alive again. It was easier to balance the flavors. And we really turned a corner when we added the real lime.”

Curious Traveller enters a marketplace quickly crowding with the new brews of summer. And with a unique flavor profile and “curious” marketing angle filled with personality and fun sophistication, how does it stack up against the others?

Well, for this unique flavor challenge, I invited one of the best palates in the business - Stokyardpalate.com’s Jay Daly (@jaydoughnuts). Jay put himself in critical condition for refreshment by running five miles to my backyard in Ravenswood, and before we were through, we finished eleven different summer fruit brews, and a couple of timely cheesteaks from Monti’s just down the street. Here’s our take on the tarty bunch.

Clown Shoes Clementine 1.5

A great control for the rest of these tastings since it’s a traditional white ale with some added flavors, fruit and a good kick. Full bodied, heavy spice-orange peel, creamy finish, bright flavors, and boozy.

Buffalo Bill’s Orange Blossom Cream Ale

Like a Buffalo Bill creamsicle! Creamy tangerine bomb, similar to the wheach in it’s viscosity and strong flavor, but finishes drier. Creamy bitterness comes through.

Dogfish Head Festina Peche

Tart as a mother! Really makes you pucker. Nice body, but needs a crisper finish — does’t make you thirsty for more. Maybe a better slow beer for summer rather than sessionable. 

O’Fallon Wheach 

Incredible peach skin nose, light body, lingers on the tongue. A very wet texture that coats the mouth.

Leinie’s Summer Shandy 

A completely vacant interpretation of a radler or shandy. It’s a shame that this defines the category for so many people.

Magic Hat Elder Betty

Artificial tasting, and flavor is too strong to drink much of this one. Reminds me of Leinie’s berry weiss, too strong a nose and not enough balance or nuance in the flavor.

Dark Horse Raspberry Ale

Fantastic nose of sour raspberries, not too sweet, almost too clean to be real fruit. Full bodied, malt finish like a real beer.

Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager

Strawberries and cream, a bit artificial tasting but nice nose, like strawberry butter. Finishes like a La Croix.

Stiegl Lemon Radler

This one is sweet to the point of tasting tart. Almost like a pucker lemon candy. As the memory of some of the other beery brews fade, it resolves to an easy lemon soda beer fizz, eventually finishing like a Sprite.

Stiegl Grapefruit Radler

So good! grapefruit peel, sour, tart, less sweet than the lemon Radler. The grapefruit hits quickly on the tongue, but then dissipates behind all that wonderful fizz.

Curious Traveller Shandy

Alan was right — it’s well balanced, has that wheat base zing with a thin malt backbone, and the lemon provides a slightly tart, medicinal bitterness that actually highlights the lemon flavor instead of burying it all with sugar. Well done. 

Shiner Ruby Redbird

Strong ginger flavor with grapefruit bite, but almost no nose at all. Great golden color. Really balanced flavor with ginger heat and citrus crispness. One of my favorites this year. 

Thanks to Jay and his advanced palate. Despite being half my weight and running five miles to the tasting, his notes were far more coherent than mine. Check out Stockyardpalate.com for his take on Chicago’s own part of the expanding American palate. 

Michael Kiser