What the Hell Is “Summer Beer”?

Since Anchor Brewing debuted the first self-identified "summer beer" in 1984, the category has yielded some of America's best-selling beers. And yet it has no official definition. Aaron Goldfarb on what "summer beer" means, and what you should be drinking now.

Summer Beer

It’s inevitably coming. Soon just about every food or drink-dabbling website will release their “Best Summer Beers” listicle. Some lists will have five entries, some could have 50, but one thing will be similar: Every beer will be light, drinkable … and made in a completely different style.

The Beer Judge Certification Program defines 28 distinct styles of beer, and “summer beer” is not one of them, even though seasonal beers like Oktoberfest and Christmas/winter beer are defined. Likewise, every September the Great American Beer Festival awards prizes in nearly 100 categories and, again, summer beer is not one. In fact, Garrett Oliver’s 960-page The Oxford Companion to Beer only manages to mention “summer ale” three times, all of minor consequence.

So what exactly is summer beer?

The first self-identified summer beer was brewed in 1984 by San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. Anchor Summer Beer was clean, crisp and light, due to a then-atypical use of wheat. “Nobody had made a wheat beer in America for 60 or 70 years,” claims Bob Brewer—yes, his real name—a longtime rep for the company. “So we thought that that would be fine to resurrect the style,” a filtered version of the classically cloudy, overtly yeasty German hefeweizen.

Anchor’s newfangled wheat beer kicked off an indefinable, know-it-when-you-see-it summer beer style for years to come. Yet, because there’s never been an officially recognized definition of summer beer, the “category” has taken on a life of its own. A BeerAdvocate.com search finds 1153 beers currently in their database with “summer” in the beer name. Yet the website doesn’t include summer beer amongst its 104 categorized styles, filing most beers labeled “summer” in the American Pale Wheat Ale category.

Today, the most famous American summer beer is undoubtedly Samuel Adams Summer Ale, which entered the marketplace in 1996. It’s become an immensely popular offering—“Samuel Adams Seasonal” is literally the best-selling craft beer in America, according to IRI market research—even if many hardcore beer geeks don’t particularly care for it. (A sample review on BeerAdvocate: “Smell is very citrusy with what I would say as ‘dish liquid’ undertones.”)

Like Anchor’s bellwether, it’s a light wheat ale, but differs in that, instead of just simulating citrus flavors via hops and grains, lemon peel and grains of paradise are actually added to the recipe, ushering in a new approach.

By the dawn of the aughts, just about every brewery began making their own barely-definable summer beer, and like Sam Summer, most have added citrus (or citrus “flavors”) to them.

“The idea of brewing beers to match the seasons actually dates back for centuries,” says Jennifer Glanville, Samuel Adams’ director of brewery programs. “Brewers used the freshest ingredients on hand, from fruits to herbs and spices, which reflected the flavor of the season.”

Beyond the citrus, though, today’s summer beers can be anything from a pilsner (Sierra Nevada Summerfest) to a kölsch (Harpoon Summer Beer) to a session IPA (Narragansett Summer Ale).

“I think any beer you could happily be drinking at a BBQ, outside, with friends would qualify,” notes James Godman, a brewer with Hop Back Brewery in Britain. “I guess you probably want something with enough flavor so you can still enjoy it cold; bitter enough to be refreshing, but not too dry; something with a hint of sourness can be nice, too,” he paused, then laughed. “I’m not too sure on ‘summer beer’ being a defined category, as you can probably tell.”

Which is indeed funny, as his brewery released the immensely popular Summer Lightning in 1989. A low-ABV blonde-like bitter, according to Godman, it’s “deceptively drinkable.” In fact, it was such an instant hit that Summer Lightning became a year-round offering, and is still selling well to this day.

It’s clear that drinkers on both sides of the Atlantic want something with “summer” on the label to be light, drinkable and citrusy — a simple desire that has also led to the current popularity of the shandy and radler, essentially light, drinkable citrus juice and beer hybrids.

In a testament to this trend, this year MillerCoors changed the name of Coors Light’s Summer Brew to Citrus Radler without changing the recipe whatsoever. Since “Summer Brew” is a common term for a made-up style, while radler is a real style that’s still fairly obscure, one has to wonder what the marketing geniuses at one of the world’s largest breweries were thinking.

“With the variety of summer beers in the market today, ‘Summer Brew’ wasn’t communicating the flavor of our beer as accurately as it could,” Anna Tsurkis, senior marketing manager at Coors Light, told me. “Navigating an ever-more crowded summer beer market, we made this change to ensure we were effectively communicating the beer’s identity and flavors.”

The fact that the category has grown beyond the simple wheat beer Anchor pioneered 26 years ago is a testament to how broad, and ultimately up for interpretation, the concept of summer beer is. I’ve ultimately realized it’s less a distinct style than an effort to translate a feeling into 12 ounces of liquid. A feeling of the hot sun on your face, the sand tickling your toes, the sudden desire to eat more hot dogs than is ever advisable. In this spirit, below is a list of the beers that are my summer beers, whether they bear “summer” on the label or not.

Five “Summer Beers” to Try

Carton Dune Fruit — My most anticipated summer release is from my friends in nearby New Jersey. This low-ABV (3.9 percent) Berlinerweisse is made with prickly pear paddles from the state’s Sandy Hook Dunes. Some say prickly pear is a hangover cure. Win, win.

Crooked Stave St. Bretta Citrus Wildbier — Denver’s Crooked Stave releases a new version of St. Bretta each season, using whatever citrus is fresh. This year’s wild ale is brewed using blood oranges, making it delicately tart.

Green Flash Hop Odyssey Citra Session — Truly hoppy beers often get ignored once swimsuit season starts, but this is about as drinkable as it gets. Citra hops give this beer a burst of lemon, orange and grapefruit.

Prairie Somewhere — Nothing says summer like saison, which is no surprise given these Belgian farmhouse beers were traditionally brewed in winter to be drunk in summer. Look for any offerings from Prairie Artisan Ales or Saint Somewhere Brewing — two of America’s best saison makers. Or better yet, look for this summer’s collaboration between the two.

Westbrook Gose — Just a few years ago, even most beer geeks hadn’t heard of the gose style, a traditional German salty/sour wheat beer. Since then the style has made a major comeback, fueled by this very beer.