In recent months, Paste’s style tastings and rankings have focused more tightly onto specific, well-defined styles: American saisons. American wheat beers. American porters. This is not that tasting.
In terms of “seasonal” beer, summer and fall are probably the two biggest seasons, but fall can only be mentioned in the same breath because of Octoberfest and pumpkin offerings, which dominate the craft beer marketplace from Sept-Nov. Summer, on the other hand, is much more open and less defined in the styles produced by the beer industry. On one hand, this is pretty exciting: Just about anything can be a summer seasonal. On the other hand, it made us a little wary in how we were going to taste and rank a huge pool of potential summer seasonals.
What we decided was to be as inclusive as possible—let the breweries decide what makes a good “summer beer,” and then simply see if we agree with them. And what we ended up with was an incredible array of things to taste. Blonde ales. Pale ales. IPAs and DIPAs. Wheat beers. Fruit beers. Spice beers. We tasted them all, with only a few rules.
Rules and Details
- Entries must be a summer seasonal, which is to say only available in summer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great beer to drink during summer, if it’s available year-round, then it’s not included. When you leave a comment to complain about a beer being left off, it would really help us if you at least considered the possibility that it might not be a summer seasonal.
- Pretty much all beer styles were included except for sours. We’ve received a variety of Berliner weisses, gose’s and American wild ales, but we’ll be doing upcoming tastings that are exclusively for tart beers.
- Tasters include beer writers and brewery owners. Superior (finally Paste-branded!) glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged by how exemplary they were in their own style, and given 1-100 scores.
The Field: Beers #58-26
As always, there are plenty of great beers here in the field that simply couldn’t make the top 25. Some of them were styles that were simply done better by other beers on the list—if your brewery makes a fruit beer, but it’s the third or fourth best featuring that fruit in our tasting, then it’s probably not going to make the top of the field. A few of these beers had technical issues, but the majority of them are brews that we’d happily reach for on a hot summer day. They’re listed below in alphabetical order so you’ll know what we sampled. They are not ranked. Repeat, these are not ranked.
Alaskan Brewing Co. Raspberry Wheat
Aspen Brewing Co. This Season’s Blonde
Breckenridge Brewery SummerBright Ale
Bridgeport Stumptown Tart
Brooklyn Brewery Summer Ale
DuClaw Brewing Co. Funk
DuClaw Brewing Co. Morgazm
4 Hands Brewing Co. Send Help
4 Hands Brewing Co. Contact High
Foothills Brewing Co. Hopjob Session IPA
Full Sail Session Cream Ale
Geary’s Summer Ale
Gordon Biersch Sommerbrau
Half Acre Beer Co. Vallejo IPA
Harpoon Summer Ale
Hi-Wire Brewing Uprising Hefeweizen
Hop Concept Citrus & Piney
Lake Placid Pub & Brewery Around the Bend Pale Ale
Lucky Bucket Brewing Bellyflop
Sam Adams Porch Rocker
Sam Adams Summer Ale
SanTan Brewing Co. Mr. Pineapple
Saranac Summer Pils
Second Self Brewing Co. Summer IPA
Short’s Brewing Co. Nicie Spicie
Shiner Prickly Pear
Ska Brewing Mexican Logger
Southern Tier Hopsun
Southern Tier Tangier Session IPA
Sun King Brewing Indians Lager
Summit Brewing Co. Summer Ale
Uinta Brewing Sum’r
Upland Brewing Co. Campside Session IPA
Next: #’s 25-1, a winner is crowned
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: Whole fruit raspberry puree
The verdict: The “hefeweizen” name might imply a German-style wheat beer, but this is undoubtedly an American pale wheat with added raspberry—a classic twist on wheat beer that you can find in God knows how many neighborhood brewpubs every summer. We found it significantly less syrupy than a few of the other, boozier fruit beers, with a better synthesis between its “wheat beer” elements and its fresh, sweet fruitiness. It’s not a genre-defining raspberry beer, but the fact that it finishes dry helps it remain drinkable and not become a cloying mess.
City: Juneau, AK
Key ingredient: Kolsch yeast
The verdict: A fairly middle-of-the-line representation of what “kolsch” has come to approximate in American craft beer today, Alaskan’s summer seasonal is an easy-drinking, orange-colored, light-bodied ale clearly meant for warm-weather drinking, although one has to wonder how warm it ever really gets in Juneau. Lightly malty, with a bit of toasted breadiness and floral hops, it also has a slightly fruity profile that keeps things interesting. Kolsch can occasionally have a little bit of darker fruit flavor not quite expected for beers of their hue, and that comes through, although subtly, in this example.
City: Portland, OR
Key ingredient: Lemondrop hops and “natural lemonade flavor”
The verdict: Multiple tasters wrote the phrase “Countrytime Lemonade” after taking a whiff of Widmer’s shandy, so we’d be lying if we said we were expecting to actually enjoy the taste. It smells incredibly sweet and candylike—like a piece of lemon meringue pie—so we took our sips and braced for the worst … and were surprised. Despite the incredibly lemon-sweet aromatics, the beer isn’t nearly as cloying as one might expect. What you’re left with is a crisp, lemony citrus drink that may be slightly short on the “beer” element, but we can’t deny that it’s refreshing as hell. As one taster wrote, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I like this.” We certainly wouldn’t think twice about reaching for one after mowing the lawn this summer.
City: Crozet, VA
Key ingredient: Belgian yeast
The verdict: Belgian pale ale is an interesting choice for a summer seasonal—props for thinking outside the blonde ale box. One wonders, picking up the glass, if you’ll be drinking some kind of miniature abbey ale, but the Belgian influence actually isn’t that aggressively pronounced, simply adding a bit of phenolic spiciness and a touch of funk. That touch of complexity helps create a more memorable beer than the classic American pale ale it’s layered upon, making for a final product that is one part mild, citrusy hops and one part restrained Belgian funk. Both sides are well-balanced and pleasant, and that tends to equate with drinkability.
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Orange zest and coriander
The verdict: A pretty classic Belgian wit, even if the ABV is a touch higher than you usually see in the style. Belgiany esters, spice, a bit musty and restrained, citrus zest bitterness. If you’ve had a good American wit before, then you’ve probably had a beer similar to it, although I must say it did manage to generate one of my favorite written tasting notes of this session: “Bread with honey butter.” I’m not sure if we all picked up on that one, but regardless, it’s a solid Belgian wit.
City: Baltimore, MD
Key ingredient: Lemon and orange peel
The verdict: It’s sort of funny that Heavy Seas’ website begins its description by saying that Smooth Sail “isn’t your average summer ale,” because in our minds, that’s not necessarily a bad way to describe it. Perhaps thanks to the genre-defining style that Sam Adams first gave their own summer seasonal, this kind of beer just happens to be exactly what we imagine when someone says “summer ale”: low ABV, crisp, possibly wheat in the grist, citrus-influenced. Smooth Sails hits all of those marks and does it well. It’s light and clean, with no off-flavors, crackery malt and just a hint of zesty citrus. One wrote a pretty much exact summation: “Crisp, refreshing, what you want from a summer seasonal.” So wear the title proudly, Heavy Seas.
City: Escondido, CA
Key ingredient: Big spice flavors
The verdict: From the moment you see the name, you know it’s not going to be a really reverential, classical saison, nor is it ever going to win any awards based on BJCP definitions of the style. Stone’s saison, predictably, goes its own course. It’s a pretty brash beer, and tastes bigger than its 6% ABV, mostly thanks to hopping (naturally) and especially the aggressive use of spices, although Stone mentions more herbal flavors such as lemon thyme and lavender. Regardless, the one signature note to us is definitely ginger, which makes for an unusual saison indeed. Definitely not traditional, but a nice change of pace, recommended for drinkers who like particularly assertive spice beers.
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: German lager yeast and noble hops
The verdict: This German-style helles is pretty much crispness incarnate—so drinkable that the primary result of drinking one would likely be to look down at the empty glass in surprise before slouching off to get another. One of the highest compliments you can pay to such a subtle style is that it’s very clean, with no off-flavors, simply allowing its light, Continental malt and hop character to shine. The hops come through as floral and slightly lemony, with maybe just a hint of vanilla on the nose as well. Ultra refreshing stuff.
City: Seattle, WA
Key ingredient: Blood orange
The verdict: It’s interesting to read tasting notes that occasionally say the same things, but with completely different connotations. Multiple tasters wrote the phrase “candied blood orange” while tasting Elysian’s Superfuzz, a blood orange pale ale, but not all of them meant it in glowing praise. Although a few tasters thought the citrus pushed too far, most of us were immediate fans of the juicy-sweet quality it provided, which pushes beyond simply “citrus” and also brings a berry-like fruitiness into play. It makes for a vivacious, assertive pale ale that wasn’t quite like anything else on the table.
City: San Diego, CA
Key ingredient: Rye malt, Amarillo hops
The verdict: Well, you gotta hand it to Green Flash, I don’t think anyone saw a 9% ABV imperial rye IPA coming as a summer seasonal when this was first released last year. It’s difficult to rate while taking seasonality into account at all, because it’s simply so much burlier than a lot of the other offerings on tap during this time of year. Judged solely on its own merits, though, it’s still a damn good beer, bringing markedly pepper-spicy rye notes into play that match well with the classic citrus of Amarillo and more avant garde citrus-tropical combo of Mosaic hops. There’s also a ton of crystal malt in play—the beer comes off almost as an overgrown riff on Founders’ classic Red’s Rye, which is by no means a bad thing to be. You can debate whether it’s summer-appropriate, but it’s tasty in any season.
City: Los Angeles, CA
Key ingredient: Citra and New Zealand hop varietals
The verdict: A very nice IPA that sort of caught us off guard, Heal the Bay supports a charity by the same name working to protect Southern California watersheds. The beer is a classic but nevertheless beguiling West Coast IPA, utilizing some of the best in trendy hop varietals—Citra provides its namesake citrus while the unnamed Southern Hemisphere varieties impart exotic tropical fruitiness: Think the light, brightness of kiwi. This beer may be overlooked a bit, considering that it’s not coming from one of the hyped Californian breweries synonymous with hops, but if that simply means there’s more available for us then we’re fine with it. We admire that they don’t use a single malt variety besides 2-row: It’s as clean and dedicated a hop expression as any hop-head could hope for, while simultaneously remaining drinkable and even refreshing.
City: Manhattan, KS
Key ingredient: Citra hops
The verdict: An excellent example of the hoppy American wheat ale substyle, the Halcyon from Tallgrass is a beer sure to be appreciated during the heat of the summer. Unlike some of the flavored or otherwise fruited wheat beers, all of its citrus flavors (which are there in spades) come from the hops, and they don’t overshine a solid base of bready, biscuity malt. There’s really nothing fancy about it; it’s just a great example of how flavorful an American pale wheat can be. One can imagine pairing something like it alongside a hot, crispy basket of fish and chips at your neighborhood brewpub.
City: Abita Springs, LA
Key ingredient: Noble hops
The verdict: A pretty faithful German pilsner wasn’t really what we were expecting from Abita as a summer seasonal, but it’s a surprisingly satisfying and well-executed offering for classic pils fans. It’s actually a bit more like a Czech pils than it is a German one—no Saaz hops technically, but no shortage of the spicy noble hop flavors that one expects in a classic Czech example. Craft beer drinkers just beginning their exploration of these styles tend to overlook pilsners, associating the word with Miller Lite advertising, but to hop heads with a fondness for classic European styles, a pilsner in this mold is a very hop-forward beer indeed. It’s a beer that exceeds our expectations and would no doubt provide the palate-cleansing dryness to pair well with just about anything you’d find at a backyard BBQ.
City: Philadelphia, PA
Key ingredient: “A classic Belgian yeast strain,” malted summer wheat
The verdict: Compared to say, the Stone Saison offering, Yards is definitely the more traditional farmhouse ale, and a pretty effective one at that. Very flavorful and assertive, with tons of funky esters and classic aromas of banana and clove, one has to wonder how it would have fared in our recent blind-tasting and ranking of American saisons. The only thing holding it back from the top 10 was the fact that a few tasters perceived it as slightly more bitter than expected for a quaffable summer saison.
City: Seattle, WA
Key ingredient: Mosaic and Eldorado hops
The verdict: The brewery says that “a touch of wheat softens this IPA,” but make no mistake, this is a hop bomb in the truest sense. Probably the most intensely hop-forward (but still primarily dry) single IPA in the tasting, Dayglow packs strong bitterness and big tropical fruity hop aromatics. There is some mild sweetness; it’s not totally dry, but the intensity of hop bitterness sort of washes away those minor residual sugars as it prickles on your palate. Mosaic and Eldorado are both hops of the moment, and beers of this type are the primary reason they’ve come into vogue—big, bold IPAs packed with tropical fruit flavors of grapefruit, mango, melon and passionfruit. Please note: If awesome labels were worth any bonus points, then Dayglow would surely have snuck into the top 10. That laser tiger label is among our favorite on the market today.
Next: The top 10
City: Downington, PA
Key ingredient: A combo of German and American hops
The verdict: You really don’t see a ton of cross-pollination between different national hop traditions within the same beer, and that’s probably one of the things that helps Summer Love stand out as one of the best of the self-described “summer ales.” On one hand, you’ve got the lightly floral and spicy qualities of German Tettnang, but in the same beer, U.S. Citra—an unorthodox pairing indeed. The result is a light-bodied ale that initially seems simply crisp, pleasant and conventional before a surprising twist of fresh, orangey citrus on the back end brings you around for another curious sip. It’s one of the best commercially available examples of that “summer ale” archetype we detailed earlier.
Key ingredient: New Zealand Motueka hops
The verdict: The best hoppy American pale wheat this side of Three Floyd’s Gumballhead, Half Acre’s Akari Shogun boasts a perfumey, resinous blast of citrus and tropical fruit aromas. Very bright fruit flavors are balanced by a bit of the expected doughy wheat. Some tasters felt that the intensity of flavor couldn’t quite match the vivacious fruit aromatics, but that may have simply been excuse to repeatedly taste some more. One has to think this is a style of beer that would probably sell well all year round, but of course it’s especially welcome in the summer.
City: Fort Collins, CO
Key ingredient: Humulus Lupulus
The verdict: It’s hard to believe that this “extra pale ale” from Odell isn’t a year-rounder, given how perfectly balanced and put together it is. Heavy on the floral aromatics, it also has a uniquely earthy tone and bitterness that’s near the top range of what you’ll ever find in an American pale ale—in reality, this one is certainly straddling the boundaries between APA and IPA. Still, despite that, it remains sessionable, that kind of thing you could imagine putting away in quantity at the perfect summer BBQ. It leans toward the hops, yes, as the name would certainly imply, but there’s just enough biscuity malt as well to give it some semblance of balance.
City: Newport, OR
Key ingredient: Rogue hopyard honey
The verdict: Any time we see “honey” in a description we brace ourselves for a big, cloying mess, but this beer from Rogue wasn’t the sugar bomb that we feared. Rather, it’s a bit of an unusual, unconventional take on German Kolsch, infused with the essence of natural honey in such a way that it reminds us of where honey really comes from—flowers. In this case, hop flowers, imparting intriguing floral and herbal aromas without excessive sweetness. According to Rogue, precisely 7,140,289 bees toiled to make the beer that one taster noted was “crisp, light, refreshing, subtle honey, dry, yummy.”
City: Healdsburg, CA
Key ingredient: Cascade and First Gold hops
The verdict: Hands down, the most purely hoppy and in-your-face offering on the table, it’s a little tough to imagine imbibing a Mach 10 from Bear Republic in just about any classic summer scenario. At the beach? Not going to happen. At a BBQ? Not if you want to drive home. But on your patio at the end of a hard work day, as the sun sets? That just might work. Massively rich and packing huge caramel notes, that maltiness is still overcome and washed away by a tidal wave of dank, catty, tropical fruity hops and quite a bit of booziness as well. Very fruity, very complex, very sweet, but hard to put down. If there’s such a thing as a summer barleywine, this is pretty much it.
City: Kalamazoo, MI
Key ingredient: A fruity American ale yeast
The verdict: Bell’s massively popular summer seasonal may be the king of the American pale wheats. It actually tastes a bit bigger, sweeter and more full of body than a lot of the other wheat-based beers in the lineup (and there are a lot of summer wheats), which may be one of the factors that has made it so wildly successful. Aromas are strongly citric—like candied orange and lemon, set atop a base of clean, creamy wheat malt. It simply packs a higher volume of flavor than most American pale wheats do, which is integral in this substyle—there’s nothing less interesting than a bland American pale wheat. And Oberon is anything but bland.
City: Cooperstown, NY
Key ingredient: Ommegang house yeast, Bravo hops
The verdict: Nothing that Brewery Ommegang makes can really be called hop-forward when it comes to the American definition of hoppiness, even this delicious summer ale adorned with hop flowers—”fleur de houblon”—on the label. Rather, it’s the Belgian yeast that really expresses itself in a beautiful way, giving us classic aromas of clove and peppery spice that are indeed chased eventually by the floral aspects of the hops. Unlike some of the higher gravity offerings from Ommegang, though, Fleur de Houblon comes across as wonderfully light and drinkable—it seems almost impossible that it could be 6.8% ABV. It would be difficult to ask for a traditional Belgian ale more refreshing.
City: New Ulm, MN
Key ingredient: A Bavarian weissbeer yeast in use since 1984
The verdict: Hands down, the biggest surprise of this particular tasting. August Schell is one of those “legacy breweries” with deep roots in the history of American craft beer, the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the country after Yuengling. And yet we all know that those breweries rarely come up in conversations about the “best” of anything, even if they were integral to many drinkers’ introductions to better beer. And yet, tasting this hefeweizen, every taster came to the same conclusion independently—this is simply a great beer by any definition. How can this only be a summer seasonal? Beautifully rich, ripe banana aromas sit atop a bready, creamy body—it reminds one of a fresh Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, and that’s just about the highest compliment you can pay in this particular style. It may not be quite as transcendent as the Urban Chestnut Schnickelfritz that finished #2 in our American wheat beer tasting, but as far as summer seasonals go, it blows our minds that August Schell is making a beer this good.
City: San Diego, CA
Key ingredient: An absurd amount of West Coast hops
The verdict: Of all the breweries to say “screw it, we made a DIPA for summer,” Alesmith pulls it off the best. If you like classic, West Coast DIPA, then you pretty much like this beer—it would make an excellent example of the style, although it has a bit more caramel maltiness than some of the other foundational examples. Notice I said “a bit,” because it’s still a hop bomb of the first order, with huge grapefruit and tangerine notes in particular, along with more than a little booziness and fruitcake flavor. Hot weather beer? Up to you. But there’s no way we’d ever let a summer go by without snapping up a bottle.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: The captive life force of every raspberry on Earth
The verdict: There were a fair number of raspberry or otherwise fruited beers in this tasting, but side by side with Rübæus, the differences become clear. This beer, which you can really only call a “raspberry ale” in description, contains such an intensity of red berry flavor, but it’s somehow not overly sweet. Nor is it accurately described as a sour—there’s a bit of very mild tartness there, but perhaps that’s just to be expected when combined with the acidic nature of the berries themselves. It doesn’t belong categorized with American sours, that’s for sure, and yet that combination of dryness and just a bit of tartness make for a beer that is far more drinkable than anything with this degree of raspberry flavor should be. It’s a bit like the world’s best raspberry jam, reinterpreted as a beer. Perhaps not the thing you’d want to drink half a dozen of in the course of a day, but it’s also hard to believe we’d get tired of it being available in any season. Rübæus is unusual stuff, but it’s also our top summer seasonal beer.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he has no qualms about drinking DIPAs in July. You can follow him on Twitter.