As if our azaleas weren’t enough, liquid clues to the solstice abound — and I mean beer, not rain. Some favorite brewers have shipped their spring and summer seasonals, and we’ve got two giant brewfests on back-to-back May weekends. I’ve been sampling the recent releases — on your behalf, of course.
First, in unbiased alphabetical order, Abita Brewing Company has reprised its Spring India Pale Ale and it’s hard to find a bar or package store not stocking it right now. Why? Because this slightly spicy, brightly hoppy brew is outstanding by itself and also great with food.
Available March through May, Abita Spring IPA calls itself “West Coast style” — so you can expect hop aromas rising an inch or two above the glass, followed by equally forward hop flavors. Spring IPA blends Amarillo (floral and spice with a distinct orange scent) and Centennial (floral and citrus; used for flavor and bittering) hops, both grown in Washington state. They create a top-note citrus fusion, with pine resin flavors deeper down.
(Amarillo is used in Dogfish Head’s 60-Minute IPA and in New Belgium’s Mighty Arrow, if you know those beers. You won’t mistake them or Abita Spring for anything but an IPA.)
Because Amarillo and Centennial are mid-bitter hops, Abita Spring avoids the Sahara-dry finish. There is, in fact, a current of malty sweetness running through the mix. Flavor layers make this beer particularly friendly with spicy foods, like Mexican-style shrimp tacos. You could enjoy it with Chinese food, too, or while nibbling some extra-mature Cheddar. (ABV 6.25 percent; $9 for six.)
Next up, Back Forty Brewing Company has spliced spring and summer in its Paw Paw’s Peach wheat seasonal. I adore Back Forty’s beers, as anyone who reads this column knows. Readers also know I’m not, however, a fan of fruit beers or wheat beers — and this one is (yikes!) both. But Paw Paw’s Peach isn’t a Belgian-style sticky-fruit infusion and it’s not cloudy-sneezy white, either (Back Forty blends wheat with two barley strains and mild Vanguard hops). The peaches add a fresh, breezy note — not undue sugar. At 4.5 percent ABV, this is meant to be a session beer. It’s a treat by itself, or with grilled flounder and fresh summer salads. (Available at better package stores; $10-ish for six.)
Sticking with the B’s, there is Blue Point, Long Island’s largest craft brewery, which releases its Spring Fling Copper Ale (5.2 percent ABV) between February and April each year. This is a light-to-medium-bodied brew with a striking clear-copper color and an inch of frothy white head. Spring Fling has balanced aromas of citrus, caramel and flowers, with flavors that mirror the aromas — but it’s possibly maltier than you’d expect. The copper hue and white head are appealing, and the beer tastes as clean as it looks. It’s made from German barley and American hops, but Blue Point doesn’t say which ones. (A flaw in my plan to let hops be your guide in targeting new beers: if brewers don’t publish their hop varieties, we’ve lost our signposts.)
Apart from wondering about the hops, Spring Fling also gives us a philosophical point to ponder as we lounge around the pool: whether Blue Point will still be a “craft brewery” after it’s acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev. I’ve posed this question before — whether “craft” must be synonymous with “small.” In a February news note about the acquisition, InBev said it wanted “to accelerate the growth of the Blue Point portfolio and expand to new markets.” Simultaneously, though, it would “preserve the heritage and innovation” of Blue Point’s brands.
Will Blue Point remain true to its home-brewing roots? Will macro batches taste the same as micro ones? Was a brewery that already produced more than 40 beers and 60,000 barrels annually a “craft” brewery anymore? (Because 50 percent of 2013 production reportedly came from one brand — Toasted Lager — maybe beer geeks would call the remaining brands truly craft.) Personally, I’m still seeking answers. But I’ll be watching Blue Point as it expands into the Alabama market (it’s currently available in Florida and Georgia).
Evolution Craft Brewing Company (Salisbury, Md.) chose to salute spring by blending hibiscus, chamomile and honey into a session ale called Sprung — and went to enormous effort to brew a fancy lager, as far as my taster-helpers and I can tell. The idea of all those flavors made me nervous at first, but I really couldn’t find them in the brew. Maybe my palate’s too pedestrian to perceive such subtle tastes, but they eluded me. Now, not all beers float all boats equally, so if you like subtlety, Sprung may well float yours. It’s easy drinking, and at only 4.9 percent ABV you can drink a bunch and not fall over. (Available on line.)
The New Belgium Brewery rounds out this summer lineup, bringing us their Summer Helles lager. (No, not summer hell; “helles” is German for “light.”) Made from German pils barley and the noble hops Hallertau and Tettnang, it’s ultra pale and squeaky clean. It smells, in the immortal words of James May, like beer. The flavors are malty and very light, as noble hops won’t add a citrus zing. For me, Summer Helles falls in-between a German pilsner and an American lager. It’s exceptionally smooth and very sessionable (5.0 percent ABV). If you believe all craft beers have overwhelming flavors, try this one. Its light body makes it work with a variety of foods, but it’ll pair best with lighter bites. (Widely available in grocery and package stores; $9 for six.)
Now a quick brewfest recap: On May 10, we will see 99 Bottles of Beer on the Lawn at Southern Napa (Daphne’s “neighborhood wine shop”). Me, I’m getting an early festive start May 2 at the St. Louis Microfest. Yep, the ancestral home of Bud will host more than 80 craft and international brewers, and I’m headed there to check them out. Watch this space for reviews!