OK, SO MAYBE this year the notion of summertime beer drinking is a meteorological oxymoron. If the weeks to come are anything like last week, and the week before that, and the 20 weeks before that, it’s going to be awfully hard to visualize sunshine, let alone bright, blazing, stretch-out-in-the-hammock-and-pop-a-cold-one summer weather. So before you forget entirely what it was like, pause and reflect on all the things you used to do outdoors in the warm months: barbecues; softball; sailing; sex; mowing the lawn, when the grass actually dried out enough to mow. Even sneezing with hay fever would be a treat if it meant the rains had stopped.
Best of all was a cold beer in the hot sun—out on the deck, or the boat, or the beach . . . Whoa!–watch that brown-bagging in the park, or you might get nabbed by the cops or (worse yet) elected to City Council. Seattle’s lawgivers, who doubtless drafted the city code in a year like this, when the sun never arrived, didn’t appreciate the natural nexus between sunshine, beer, and the great outdoors; the city’s ban on drinking in parks here has driven this publishing company’s annual picnic all the way to Mercer Island and Lake Sammamish, just so the hopheads in the art department can guzzle in peace. Most Seattleites do appreciate the beer-sun connection; not only didn’t getting busted with a Ballard Bitter in a Kirkland park hurt Tina Podlowdowski’s City Council prospects, it proved that—Microsoft zillionaire or not—she still had the common touch.
Northeast Brazil, which has the most endless summer of all, has raised this appreciation to a high art. City beaches there are lined with scores of thatch-roofed “bars” that whip up exquisitely thirst-provoking fried fish and crabs boiled in seawater, then quench that thirst with table-tottering deployments of light, frothy beer served for maximum chill effect. None of your 12-ounce servings there, much less full pints; in that sun, they’d turn warm as porridge before you could finish them. On Brazilian beaches, beer is always served estupidamente gelada, or “frozen stupid”: a 22-ounce bottle, chilled to just above the Popsicle point and clapped into a thick foam insulating tube. The foam cover is lifted just long enough to fill tiny tumblers—or, rather, half-fill them, to make sure the beer doesn’t warm up.
This meticulous drill has taken on the trappings of a sacred rite, as beer-drinking routines often do. They can also survive as habit: When you see folks in Vietnamese restaurants pouring their beer over ice, it’s because refrigeration is scarce in much of Vietnam, so beer is kept warm and served with a glassful of ice chipped from a block.
ODD THOUGH THEY may seem from our temperate vantage point, such practices uphold two basic truths: The hotter the weather, the colder your beer had better be. And if you chill it enough, any beer (or at least any beer save Budweiser) can seem tasty. That’s because chilling tends to bring out hoppy bitterness while blunting a brew’s malty, sweet, and aromatic qualities, to lend edge while losing roundness. Which is just the sort of gustatory cleansing you want when the world seems to be melting into a puddle of sweat, and which is why light lagers that only taste good heavily chilled taste best in summer.
But all of this flies in the face of our own local craft-brewing traditions, which derive primarily from British ale styles made for dank weather and cellar temperatures. You can of course chill the bejeezus out of a hearty stout or porter, or even a cask-conditioned ale (though it’ll no longer be the living infusion it was), and it’ll still taste a helluva lot better than a light lager served warm. But that misses the point of those beers.
On the other hand, a paler, well-hopped ale—say, Grant’s IPA or Redhook Rye—makes a terrific refrigerator beer, and who says you always have to follow the rules for serving ale? Most hefeweizens, the local warm-weather favorites, must be served cold if they’re to have any bite. If you’re crossing over to the lager side, try something hoppier than Bud or Brazilian Brahma Chopp—a German or Japanese mainstay, or Singha or San Miguel (tropical beers conduce to tropical fantasies), or even Henry Weinhard’s. The extra bittering is more likely to pique rather than “quench” your thirst, whatever the ads may say. But hey, have another and sweat it off. You’re lolling on the beach, not driving.
Dream on. You’re sitting in your living room or your favorite pub, snarling at the damp chill outside and dreaming of some place like Brazil. Save the cerveja estupidamente gelada for there; this is still ale country, where summer is more a concept than an event, and we have an array of our own brews to go with it, from Redhook, Grant’s, Pyramid, Hales, to innumerable other locals. Barkeep, another pint of your intelligently tepid special bitter! And please don’t chill the glass.