Q: Why is American beer like making love in a canoe?
A: It's f--king close to water.
That zinger—deployed by Eric Idle in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl but not, I'm guessing, original to him—is a relic in this age of microbrews and hoppy ales and more domestic porters and stouts than you can shake a shillelagh at. But the long dark age of 20th-century American brewing that it refers to lingers in the insecurities of many a would-be beer snob. For anyone who graduated from the Bud/Miller/Coors axis to "real" beer, it can be easy to equate color (amber or darker) and big flavor with quality. Which is all well and good if a zesty IPA or a rich brown ale is what you're looking for.
But even beer snobs have to mow the lawn sometimes. And when it's 95 degrees with 70 percent humidity, even less strenuous outdoor activity—like sitting on a patio in the shade—can seem to call for something a little crisper, colder, dare I say lighter, than your more robust microbrews. The good news is that these days, that hardly has to mean resorting to the likes of a Corona or a Bud Light Lime.
For a start, there are the lighter varieties of weissbier, wheat-based German ales that have found some favor in the U.S. market. The kristallweiss and hefeweizen strands in particular seem popular with domestic microbrewers, not least because their straw-gold hues look like the beers we're used to seeing in TV commercials. The best-known, which is not by any means to say best, is Coors' fake microbrew Blue Moon, a Belgian-style white that has sufficiently penetrated the mainstream to be the choice of the cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates and subsequently went to the White House Beer Summit. (As an aside, I had hoped that bit of boozy diplomacy would be followed by other such ventures—a Gin G-8, a Tequila Treaty, a Pinot Peace Process. Instead, all we've gotten are tea parties.)
Wheat beers aside, there are plenty of other choices. Mike Nelson, the owner of Leaf & Ale on Kingston Pike near Cedar Bluff, gives a nod to Sierra Nevada's Summerfest, a seasonal offering from the popular California brewery. "It's a lager, not a wheat, but it's a really easy-drinking beer," Nelson says.
He also cites Skinny Dip, the summer beer from Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co., but with a caveat: It's pretty much gone for the year. (In fact, Nelson says that if you're partial to any summer beers, you'd better grab whatever's left on the shelves. They won't be restocked. Even though the temperature looks set to stay in the 90s right through the start of school, autumn ales are already on their way.)
Some other options, off the top of Nelson's head: Harpoon Summer Beer, a Kölsch from Massachusetts; Polestar Pilsner from Left Hand Brewing in Colorado; and on the import side, Paulaner Pilsner from the legendary Munich brewery.
But Nelson makes the fair point that when it's steamy and you want your beer cold, there's no shame in reverting to some more familiar names. Pennsylvania's Yuengling, for example, a mid-priced label with some hipster cachet, makes a Light Lager that Nelson says is "a non-traditional light beer"—i.e., you can actually taste it. (For what it's worth, Yuengling is the oldest operating brewery in America.) And, Nelson adds, "Man, an ice-cold Stella Artois is great on a hot summer day."
I'm inclined to just take his word on that—my Stella experiences have never been happy ones—but I'm not in any position to look down my nose. Last week I ended up at a Smokies baseball game. Even as the sun started to slide down, the thermometer stayed in the upper 80s. I was thirsty. So when a coworker sprang for a round, I wasn't about to say no, even though the can I ended up with said Michelob Light on the side. And I'll say this: It really was f--king close to water. But, you know—water's pretty easy-drinking, too.