Summer Ales

Masters Table Summer 2000

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

In the last few years discerning food-lovers have rediscovered the joys of seasonal eating. For example, asparagus in the spring, bramble fruits in the autumn - as they should be, not flown in from all over the globe and sold all year round. The seasonal trend has also hit the world of beer as British brewers celebrate the changing of the seasons and offer beer-drinkers more variety. British brewing has always had the tradition of winter ales and barley wines that warm the cockles of the heart when the mercury drops. However, the emergence of summer, spring and autumn real ales during the last few years is a new and exciting phenomenon, bringing out the best in brewers while offering new beer and food combinations.

The names of some of the summer ales speak for themselves: Summer Madness, Summer Daze, Summer That. These are beers brimming with fresh citrusy noses and palates. They are mainly pale gold in colour and most carry the quenching zing of hop bitterness in the finish that is so moreish. These are beers you can enjoy al fresco, alone or as companions to summer foodie standards such as barbecued meats, grilled fish and salads. Once again real ale brewers are challenging the assumption that beer is, just, well a pint of bitter, and that wine is the only accompaniment to good food.

So what constitutes a summer ale? If a winter ale has a rich and warming effect, then does it follow that a summer ale should be cooling and refreshing? It seems so. Friends who drink real ale during the winter and autumn often change to Czech lagers during the hot summer months, in the mistaken belief that their regular pint will taste like soup when the temperature rises -- John Major's hymn to warm beer after he became PM has a lot to answer for.

If the presentation of lager is a guide then the first thing a summer ale should be is light and pale in colour. According to John Gilbert of Hop Back Brewery who brew the stupendous Summer Lightning (5%), 'for a lighter beer malts are not so heavily kilned so you get a fresher flavour and of course a lighter colour'. Another factor is that drinkers' tastes in real ales are moving more and more towards paler ales.

The landlord of an award-winning Somerset pub recently told me that he found it very hard to sell dark beers to his regulars. 'Maybe people think it's better for you, purer,' muses Exmoor Brewery Head Brewer Adrian Newman. If so, then history is repeating itself. The success of pale ales over porters in the 19th century came about because drinkers fell for the clarity and sparkling effervescence of these new ales over the dark and often murky mugs of porter. The growth of summer ales could also be a case of brewers being inspired

by the stunning success of Summer Lightning, launched back in the late 1980s when Hop Back brewed from a pub in Salisbury. A pale-golden hoppy ale with plenty of malt and fruit on the palate, it exits with a long, dry and bitter finish. Even though it started off as a summer ale, it has long been available all the year round.

'We were the first summer beer,' says John Gilbert. 'We were asked to come up with something different for a local beer festival and as all the beers then were rich, dark and sweet I wanted to go in the opposite direction and brewed Summer Lightning. We use traditional English ingredients and add an extra dose of hops into the copper at a late stage in the boil. This helps give the beer a fresh citric flavour.'

Another pioneering golden summer ale is Exmoor Gold from Exmoor Brewery in the Somerset town of Wiveliscombe (see tasting notes). Adrian Newman wasn't at the brewery when Gold was first launched but he takes great pride in calling this excellent ale, the original Golden Ale. 'It's sold all the year round,' he tells me, 'but it's our biggest seller during the summer.' Pioneers Summer Lightning and Exmoor Gold have been joined in recent summers by the likes of Fuller's Summer Ale, Wadworth's Summer Sault, Adnams Regatta and many others, from both micro-breweries and regional family firms.

Another great must for a summer's day is a wheat beer and a British style is emerging to take its place amongst the Belgium Witbiers and Bavarian Weiss. Brewers are experimenting all sorts of flavours. Freeminers Brewery in the Forest of Dean adds ginger root to wheat beer Freemantle (see tasting notes). While down in Cornwall, head brewer Roger Ryman at St Austell has discovered that vanilla pods, cloves and coriander seeds finish off the brewery's Clouded Yellow (see tasting notes) perfectly.

'Last December we held a beer festival at the brewery,' Ryman told me, 'and it gave me the chance to brew a slightly different beer. I aimed for a Bavarian-style wheat beer with that beer's distinctive cloves and vanilla character. The problem is that Bavarian-style wheat beers get their distinctive flavours thanks to their yeast. Our yeast is totally different so I thought why not add vanilla pods and cloves.

'It's a very specialist beer. Whole vanilla pods, cloves and coriander seeds are added. No essences. I find that when essences are used you get very unnatural tastes. Brewers are really trying to create interesting beers. I think it's important that people become more aware of beer styles, it makes them more aware of the heritage of the British brewing industry.'

That great fixture of the summer scene, the barbecue, always seems associated with a man in an apron cracking open tins of cold lager. The surge of summer ales suggests it's time for a change. Wheat beers with their low hoppiness, soft malt and spice and fruit flavours are ideal for fish and shellfish enjoyed grilled on the beach.

Golden ales go well with barbecues, but how about a German smoked beer, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, for a change (see tasting notes). The intense smokiness of this excellent beer marries well with chargrilled meals. Some British breweries have tried to produce smoked beer but German rauchbiers have a tradition going back several hundred years and are nearly the sole practitioners of this style (there is an Alaskan smoked porter that I hope to try one day). Naturally they are also superb accompaniments to smoked meats and fish.

Beer can play a role in salads, believe it or not. I find that a crunchy fresh green salad dotted with walnuts and smoky bacon encourages a beer with its own hint of nuttiness on the palate. Sam Smith's Nut Brown (5%) is a rich and toffeeish brown ale (breaking the golden rule!) with a hint of hazelnut on the palate and just the job. As for a dressing with a difference, why not add a dash of British wheat beer. A newcomer to the market is Ruddles Wheat, brewed by Greene King. This is a smooth, slightly sweet, spicy and fruity beer that encourages a soft and subtle fruitiness in a standard dressing. On the other hand, try vintage ale Strong Suffolk (also Greene King): this has a vinous, almost sherry quality that adds character and vigour to any dressing.

Seasonal eating, seasonal drinking. It's time to celebrate the diversity of the great British pint. Whether you're in a beer garden or preparing a midsummer's night feast, the pleasures and possibilities of summer ales are as long as a summer's day.

Tasting Notes
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier 5.1%
Chestnut-coloured beer boasting an intense smokiness on the nose, but also a hint of maltiness. Don't be afraid of the smokiness, it's very similar to that experienced with Lapsang Souchong tea or with an excellent single malt whisky. On the palate the smokiness continues but is stopped from being too overwhelming by an excellent malt balance. The finish is long and smoky. Brewed in the Northern Bavarian area of Franconia in the town of Bamberg. Available in bottle from specialist beer sellers plus the White Horse in Parsons Green, Fulham.

Freeminer Brewery Shakemantle 5%
This is a cloudy wheat beer style spiced up with the addition of fresh root ginger. Orange-gold in color, the first thing to enjoy is the ginger on the nose, along with a hint of soft malt. It's refreshing and spicy on the palate but not overpowering giving way to a fresh, gingery finish that lingers. According to Don Burgess at the brewery, there are three different types of ginger present and he suggests that the beer be served in a Belgian witbier chunky glass with a slice of fresh lemon stuck on the brim. Available at Safeways.

St Austell Clouded Yellow 5%
This orange-gold ale has a powerful and distinctive nose of vanilla, cloves and fresh ripe banana and there's a generous soft head. On the palate soft maltiness gives way to subtle vanilla, with a long quenching finish of spice and cloves. A close relative of Bavarian Weissbiers in flavour, especially with the banana and clove notes, but it has the bite and snap of an ale. Available at Tesco's.

Exmoor Gold 5% (in bottle), 4.5% (draught)
Pale yellow in colour with sweet, juicy, orangey, passion fruit notes on the nose, followed by a very rounded and soft palate of malt and fruit. Finally there's a very bitter finish that sneaks up on you. It smells and looks like a lager but is definitely an ale. A great summer beer that satisfies whether being drunk in a sunny beer garden or with a barbecue. Available at selected supermarkets and on draught.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones