Oh, summer. It's a season for drinking outside, in the sun (or the half-frozen rain); for session-sipping brews at lively weekend barbecues, in a canoe or at the beach.
Such circumstances demand a few things of a beer. In color, texture and body, summer brews should be thirst slaking and lightweight enough to drink quickly, while they're still cold. Which means lower-alcohol beers that won't send you under the table after a single pint. In short, the kind of beers that beer writers, connoisseurs and other pundits have predicted will dominate the market every summer for the past several years.
But will 2016 go down as the summer when brewers actually trended toward low-ABV "session beers" — or sours or "yellow fizzy" beers?
Maybe. Several weeks ago, this writer set out to get a pulse on this season's offerings, but not from the big production breweries that stock every beer cooler and draft list statewide.
Instead, this list skews east of the Green Mountains, toward tiny, newish breweries with limited production and virtually no distribution — in short, toward outlets that many Seven Days readers in Chittenden County and northwestern Vermont have yet to sample.
Why? Because it's always a good idea to look local (in this case, super local) when seeking a sense of regional and national trends — and because summer is when grassroots dig deepest. And because summer is also, truly, the finest time for beer lovers to hit the road in search of liquid sustenance.
So here are seven brand-new Vermont brews that may just be worth traveling for.
Leaves of Grass
Graze (American pale ale, 5.2 percent ABV), River Roost Brewery, White River Junction. riverroostbrewery.com
River Roost brewer Mark Babson's latest release is pale canary yellow and hazy, with a clingy head of tiny bubbles. Made with pilsner and Simpsons Golden Promise malts and a scattering of oats, the beer is aimed squarely at summer drinking, Babson said. "This has a really warm-weather vibe," the brewer told Seven Days, pouring a sample in his brewery tasting room last week. "One of the brewers from Lost Nation [Brewing] was here the day I brewed it, and he said it tasted like sitting in a field of grass."
A sniff brings a nose full of grassy hops, though the bouquet fades to bubble gum and tropical fruit as the beer warms. Mouthfeel is rich and silky, and wet hay-field aromas linger toward the finish, with a dank, resiny underbelly and just a touch of cow-pasture funk.
Brewed one year ago, Decided Funk is the first in a new series of wild-fermented sour ales from brothers Dan and Patrick Foley.
Fermented clean, then poured into French oak barrels once used to store sauvignon blanc, Decided Funk slowly went sour as ambient native Lactobacillus bacteria worked their magic on the beer. Many moons later, the resulting brew is crystalline golden yellow with a nose of straw and lemons. Straightforward and fun, it's an intro-level sour, offering a quickening, tart kick and clean finish, and not too intense.
This is the first of many "Decided"-ly funky brews from the Foleys. Just days ago, the brewers bottled Decided Funk #2 — a pinkish beer conditioned on black currants from their family's Neshobe River Winery — which Patrick Foley says they'll release in late summer or fall.
Drinker's Best Friend
Golden Dog (Czech pilsner, 5.5 percent ABV), Brocklebank Craft Brewing, Tunbridge. brocklebankvt.com
One of the many running jokes among brewers is that, given how much time they spend cleaning and piping liquid from one tank to another, their job most resembles that of a plumber or janitor.
In Tunbridge, Brocklebank owner-brewer Ben Linehan is a master plumber by trade. But weekends find him and his wife, Anne, in their hill-farm brewery tasting room, where they pour samples and growlers of their easy-drinking, rustic ales, mainly to locals.
They also frequent farmers markets in Chelsea and Norwich, where this mild, pilsner-style, "well-mannered ale" — all bready malt and sparkling bubbles from start to finish — is a crowd favorite.
Raspberry Wit (witbier, 5 percent ABV), Saint J Brewery, St. Johnsbury. saintjbrewery.com
Most IPAs contain approximately zero fruit. But, with new hops varieties lending saturated notes of grapefruit, passionfruit and melon to modern ales, people often describe beers in unabashedly juicy terms. Hopheads are drinking that Kool-Aid with unprecedented thirst, even as fruit-conditioned farmhouse ales and citrusy sour beers claim an increasing market share.
All of this seems to indicate drinkers' awakening appreciation for a long-loathed scapegoat: fruit beer.
After having placed Blackbeary Wheat in hibernation in 2014, Long Trail Brewing Company started selling cans of its berry beer again by popular request this spring. And two weeks ago, newcomer Saint J Brewery (which opened inside the Green Mountain Mall in February) tapped Raspberry Wit, a barely cloudy, peachy-colored beer that smacks of a throwback brew if this writer ever tasted one. With red raspberries on the nose and a frothy, lingering head, Wit is straight and light, crystal-clean and crisp — an enviable beer for breakfast or other forms of day drinking.
Can't find it? Try Idletyme Brewing Company's blueberry hefeweizen — another berry-tinged wheat beer now available in bottles and on draft.
Hops 'Til You Drop
First Drop (American pale ale, 5.7 percent ABV), Upper Pass Beer, Tunbridge. upperpassbeer.com
Since releasing their first brew last fall, Upper Pass brewers Andrew Puchalik, Chris Perry and Ivan Tomek have kept distribution hyper-local; it's rare to find their kegs outside the Upper Valley.
Such are the limitations of brewing on a tiny, one-barrel system: Servicing more accounts would require new equipment or more hours in the day. In April, however, Upper Pass teamed up with JP Williams at von Trapp Brewing. The four brewers cooked 50 barrels of dank, resiny pale ale, and, by late May, that beer went statewide at several restaurants, including Waterbury's Blackback Pub and Burlington's Farmhouse Tap & Grill.
Called First Drop, the brew is pale amber and drips with hops from nose to finish. Round but light in the mouth, it offers subtle fruit and piney greens and packs dense flavor at a moderate booze level. It's uplifting rather than weighty.
More than one beer writer has recently argued that "fizzy yellow" beers — light, bubbly ales and lagers, in the style of familiar mass-market brews such as Budweiser, Heineken and Stella Artois — are ripe for a turn in craft brewers' kettles.
Accordingly, in the past few years, Vermont breweries, including Richmond's Stone Corral Brewery, Burlington's Simple Roots Brewing and Stowe's von Trapp Brewing, have worked kölsches and pilsners in their rotations. The variety continues to surge with each season. When Red Barn Brewing opened in Danville in early June, brewer Peter McAlenney's first-round drafts included a classic German-style ale made with pilsner malt and cool noble hops. Something of an ale treated as a lager, the beer has a pared-down, direct style that leaves little room for error — there's no hiding flaws behind heady hops or rich malt.
McAlenney says he doesn't often aspire to hops-forward glory, however. Instead, he seeks balance and drinkability in his creations, and in this category his crisp, crystal-clear Orion kölsch earns high marks.
Can't cruise to Danville for a taste? Give Rock Art Brewery's Bohemian Pilsner a swirl; it just came out in cans a few weeks ago.
I'll dare any reader to find a summer sipper more refreshing than House of Fermentology's first release. Orange Dot opens with a waft of juice and tang, followed by mouthwatering orange, light malts and a clean lactic-acid finish. It's the kind of exhilarating thirst quencher you'll want to savor and gulp, if only both were possible at once.
The beer is the work of the HoF co-owners: Todd Haire and former state legislator Bill Mares, an author, brewer and beekeeper whom you may have heard giving commentary on Vermont Public Radio. Brewed last fall, then wild-fermented in barrels with ripe cara cara oranges and Mares' wildflower honey, Orange Dot enjoyed a brief moment on draft at Burlington's Foam Brewers (another of Haire's projects) before selling out. So it's not available right now, but Haire and Mares plan to release a bottle-conditioned run of the beer at Foam Brewers this Friday, June 17, along with drafts of HoF's sour raspberry-infused Pink Dot golden ale.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Summer of Suds"