The Science of Summer Ale
I’ve hung out with enough beer geeks in my life to know when to slowly but surely back away from a conversation. But on a recent night at the Publick House in Brookline, I found myself quite pleased to be seated next to a pair of guys furiously debating which brew was the ultimate thirst-quencher for summer.
I’ve hung out with enough beer geeks in my life to know when to slowly but surely back away from a conversation. (Usually the first clue is when they start arguing the pros and cons of “desired gravity.”) But on a recent night at the Publick House in Brookline, I found myself quite pleased to be seated—by luck of barstool roulette—next to a pair of guys furiously debating which brew was the ultimate thirst-quencher for summer. Instead of simply putting down Amstel Light in that characteristic beer–snobbish way, they spent hours talking about chemical formulas.
Formulas? How much had these guys been drinking? Still, I was curious enough to contact a few local brewers. One after another, they waxed so technical about summer brewing that I soon had no choice but to believe that science is the key to refreshing beer. That science is what creates beers that satisfy our heightened thirst, but don’t weigh us down. (Here, here!) That science gives us flavorful, potent beers that aren’t necessarily high in alcohol. (Here, here!) That science provides the useless knowledge about why those beers taste so damn good that we can use to impress any nearby cute chicks. (Um, cheers!)
There are, of course, infinite subtleties in creating the ideal summer beer. But rule number one is to keep the alcohol and sugar levels in check, because those are what give a beer its overall heft: The greater the alcohol, the heavier the taste. For a typical nonsummer brew, like a German bock, brewers use more pounds of malted grain, or malt, to formulate a beer with higher residual sugar and alcohol, which in turn equals more flavor and more kick. In winter, brewers will craft even heftier so-called double bocks, spiking the malt levels while using the same amount of water. The result is a powerhouse beer that fills you up and keeps you sitting down. Summer beers, then, must be made with considerably smaller proportions of malt. So brewers turn to more distinctive malted cereal grains, particularly wheat, and often toast them longer to provide depth. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Will Meyers, for example, makes a classic hefeweizen (which in sexy German means “wheat yeast”) with a 50-50 blend of malted barley and malted wheat. “The malted wheat lightens the body but increases the mouth feel,” Meyers says. “That gives the impression of fuller, grainier flavor.”
Malt isn’t the only ingredient employed to distinguish summer beers: There’s also the yeast. While commercial and home brewers can buy generic brewer’s yeast just about anywhere, craft brewers single out specific strains with historical pedigree. Boston Beer Works head brewer Jeremy Cross devises his crisp, clean Kenmore Kolsch with authentic German ale yeast, which lends a more hoppy flavor while still keeping things light and refreshing. He makes his Haymarket Hefeweizen with German weinstephan yeast, which gives off a banana-clove aroma. (I love this one, which is served unfiltered, so it’s a cloudy yellow-gold.)
Cross goes even further in his quest to give his beers special flavor. His Berliner Weiss, on tap starting this month, is fermented with lactobacillus, a lactic acid–forming bacterium. The acid produces a more sour beer that contains only 3 percent alcohol. In Berlin, weiss beers are served with a dollop of syrup to sweeten and soften the brew’s acidity; here, Cross offers raspberry syrup or woodruff syrup, made from an herb indigenous to northern Germany, which makes his version eminently quaffable.
The final ingredient in great summer suds is spice. Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, says the secret to his now famous Samuel Adams Summer Ale is a West African berry: “The base is an unfiltered wheat ale, a hefeweizen. To that we add some lemon zest to brighten it up, and then to balance we use this historic brewing spice called grains of paradise, which has an orchidlike aroma and a peppery taste.” Cambridge Brewing also uses spice in its beautiful Belgian-style Saison du CBC, which has cumin seed, coriander, black pepper, and ginger root. That may seem awfully savory, but Meyers says it’s not apparent to untrained taste buds. “The trick is to use spices in a very subtle manner to increase the overall complexity of the aroma and flavor,” he explains, “while preventing any one particular ingredient from being identifiable or overwhelming the palate.”
Now that sounds like a recipe for refreshment—which is why you’ll see so many people drinking Meyers’s hefeweizens on the patio at his restaurant, or similar craft beers at top pubs like the Sunset Grill & Tap and the Publick House, which don’t brew their own but know how to stock the best local and international selections. Take the Publick House’s sleeper sipper Rodenbach, a mouthwatering sour red ale from Belgium: “This is the answer to everything you want in summer,” says owner David Ciccolo. “It’s got this sour, tart essence that’s extremely thirst quenching.” In other words, on a hot June night, it’s scientifically proven to hit the spot.