Photo by Giovanna Gomes on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
Welcome back to the semi-regular but ever-entertaining booze column with yours truly. As you might imagine, should you spend any mental energy on such things, I’m enjoying myself having these little chats with you about my perspective and preferences when it comes to alcoholic beverages. I have a bit of a unique angle on it, given my background as former brewery founder/owner turned wine and beer sales consultant. Plus my volunteer work as co-founder and current president of Fermenta, a non-profit dedicated to assisting women in the fermented food and beverages industries, offers some more perspective. Oh, and those eighteen years spent selling real estate were also spent doing “research” by, you know, drinking a lot.
Enough about my bona fides. The sun is out, the grass is green, the sky is blue possibly with a few fluffy white clouds. If you’re not sitting with your toes showing, your sunglasses on, and a beer in hand, well, let me give you an assist with that. Because I am here for you.
First of all, I’ll mention that in this super crowded beer market, if you stand in front of the beer options at your local grocery or package store with your mouth hanging open, frozen with indecision, you’re not alone. At last count in 2018, there were 7,000 licensed craft breweries operating in the United States with some estimates of a thousand more waiting in line for their licenses in 2019. Mark my paraprofessional words, we will hit 10k by 2020.
Add to that the varying ways these thousands of brewers are trying to catch your eye and your wallet by creating ever more fanciful ways to present one of the oldest beverages known to man. As we’ve discussed before, when it comes to beer, “what’s old is new again” (see: Hamm’s). But in addition to that, as you might have guessed as you stare at the Meijer beer cooler while your ice cream melts and your kid screams (it’s okay, we’ve all been there), we’re not really talking about a simple lager vs. ale decision anymore.
It’s a function of the ramped-up level of competition that we get all those amazing options you see in front of you—cans, bottles, six-packs, eight-packs, four-packs, singles, you name it, it lines those shelves. And once you figure out what format you want, you have to pick from five different IPA styles, kettle vs. traditional sours, white or dark stouts, blueberry or cucumber gose, bourbon, sherry, or wine barrel-aged stouts, well…you get the idea.
In the face of all this chaos, allow me to assist you for a few more words this month when it comes to picking the beer for your next cookout, beach vacation, deck party, or cruise along one of our many lovely lakes. Summer styles are fun these days, what with all the fruit-infused sour beers, slightly salty and refreshing goses, plus the good old standards like crisp Czech pilsners, a hybrid experience like a Kölsch or a California Common, or even a…oh.
Wait a minute. I’m sorry. I’m boring you to tears-slash-risking losing you altogether with all this boring blah blah about particular styles, aren’t I?
Let’s move right to what you can get your eager Michigan mitts on this summer that will fit your entertaining or sit-around-and-quaff-a-few needs. And allow me to shout out to a few of my Michigan beer peeps with a bit of thanks for their ideas on this local list of malt-beverage deliciousness. Let’s start with some basics. And by basics, I mean the stuff you buy and keep in the beer fridge—which is, in my case, a twenty-year-old GE workhouse in a lovely shade of mustard yellow that has served in this honored capacity for more hot summers and cold winters out in the garage than I can count. These are the beers you can pull out and toss at your friends when they stop by for a surprise evening cookout or what you can always rely upon as a go-to, low-ABV option for yourself on a random Tuesday night.
Founders PC Pils: A pilsner is a type of lager characterized by a light color and a strong, spicy flavor. This is thanks to the particular sorts of hops (Saaz) used in its creation. The Saaz hop is called a “noble hop” for reasons that are all over the map really, but basically if it’s “noble” it’s one of the older, European varieties like Saaz or Hallertau that impart both a floral note and that spiciness that’s required in a true pilsner. Founders in Grand Rapids has, in this author/drinker’s humble opinion, one of the best versions of this somewhat challenging-to-get-correct style. At only 5.5% alcohol by volume, with a classic, light, and spicy flavor, it’s the very definition of a summer session beer, at least for this drinker.
Another superb standby summer beer is Bell’s Oberon. Packaged in ubiquitous orange and blue with the smiley-face sun, this beer is wheat beer fermented with Bell’s house yeast, which over the years has presented as a straw-colored, cloudy brew with a slight hint of cloves on the nose, but a real fruit basket of flavors in your mouth. Saaz hops (wait, do I sense a theme here?) are used to bring out the spicier notes. While I’m not always a huge fan of wheat beers, this one is a no-brainer for the summer cooler at only 5.8% ABV. My favorite description of this beer comes from Rate Beer: “perilously drinkable” because…words.
If we dig a little deeper into the summer Michigan beer options, we find a super popular fruit beer from Shorts called Soft Parade. It’s one of their top-selling flavors (and they have a lot of those to choose from on any given day), made with toasted rye and malt as its base, with the added bonus of pureed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. It’s a total wallop of a fruit beer that I’ve been told can turn a wine lover into someone who appreciates a good beer. It’s got a higher ABV (7.5%) with extremely low hops flavor, which could make it a fine gateway to craft beer.
Something new to me this year, but that I highly recommend, is from New Holland Brewing and is (now stay with me here) a “white stout.” Yes, I know, stout beers are supposed to be dark brown to black. But this is 2019 and remember, brewers are up against thousands of others trying to snag your disposable alcohol dollar. So take a known style and change it up, make it as delicious as this one, and viola! (See: “Juicy IPAs” and/or “Brut IPAs,” which we will do, and soon, but I’m running out of words this month, kids). Anyway, about this beer called White Dragon—I can only describe it as tasting like a smooth, vanilla milkshake. It is a barrel-aged beer, which is still trendy, but instead of imparting a big fat ABV along with a lot of booziness that so many barrel-aged products provide, this to me is somewhat akin to what an oak barrel does for a chardonnay wine. It gives it a roundness and smoothness on the tongue that, combined with the malts, minus the roasted ones, plus the lactose…well, I’m going technical on you again and for that I apologize. Allow me to simply say you must get your hands on this one, which despite its time spent in a bourbon barrel, is only 6% ABV.
Finally, let’s have a word about three beer options that are all low in alcohol and high in flavor variations. A gose (pronounced go-suh) is actually an old style from Germany; it’s wheat beer brewed with salt and coriander seeds. This style has a fascinating if somewhat, well, gross backstory that I won’t get into here—but suffice it to say, the craft brewers of today have latched on hard to this style and continue to do super fun things with it. Two Michigan-based options spring to my mind that are great examples of what can be done with this style. Witch’s Hat Voice of the Turtle Pilsner & Blueberry Lemonade, and Arbor Brewing’s cucumber lime versions. A gose is both low in ABV (at 4%) and has that subtle hint of salt combined with fruit and many times cucumbers, which always makes for a refreshing summer beer option.
Finally, let’s talk shandies and radlers. I first encountered the British shandy style while living in Billericay (pronounced “Bill or Ricky”) in Essex (more on this in another article), east of London. I only encountered it because my oldest kid was able to accompany his buddies to purchase one at a grocery store because it is, in essence, “near beer” at a super low ABV. Plus, I’ve already established the British Approach to Alcohol. Anyways, by definition a shandy is beer mixed with Sprite or 7-Up or some other lemon-lime fizzy soda. Many breweries have picked this up and run with it here in Michigan including my personal favorite, the blueberry lemonade one from the fine folks at Saugatuck Brewing.
The term radler comes from a drink called Radlermass (literally “cyclist liter”) that was originally created by some guy named Franz Kugler in a small town outside Munich. During the great cycling boom of the Twenties, Kugler created a bicycle trail from Munich through the woods that led directly to his drinking establishment (genius, ja?). One day in June 1922, a reported “13,000 cyclists” crashed Kugler’s party. When he realized he was running out of beer, he blended it 50/50 with a lemon soda he could never seem to get rid of, and the rest is history. So a radler is a shandy, only in German, and apparently preferred by cyclists. A drink, as they say, made of necessity. The Rochester Mills Gypsy Goddess Raspberry Radler is delicious. If you’ll bear with me, I have to go off the Michigan train for a moment and highly recommend the ginger lemon radler from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, which is available in Michigan.
Drink what you love, the fun will follow. But if you’re seeking something new to you, interesting, or otherwise a Michigan summer tradition, these recommendations will help get parties started, or simply be what you need on a hot July afternoon in the Great Lakes State.