Drums, please! It’s officially summer in New England – that beautiful time of year when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of beer that’s refreshing, flavorful, and relatively low in alcohol content. Whatever your pleasure, it’s the perfect time of year to kick back and (responsibly!) indulge in some lighter fare, so let’s shine the spotlight on some of the best craft brews that the great state of Massachusetts has to offer this summer.
Lager & Light Lager: Lagers and summertime drinking have a proud tradition dating back hundreds of years, while their lighter cousins are designed to be the ultimate in crushable beer: brewed with enzymes that allow the yeast to digest all of the carbohydrates in the mash rather than just most of them, the end result is fewer calories and a milder flavor than a traditional lager.
- Off the shelf: There aren’t many craft breweries that specialize in Lagers, but fortunately for us, there happens to be a great one right down Route 9. Jack’s Abby (Framingham, MA) has been putting out crisp, refreshing brews that are perfect for a hot summer day since 2011. Whether you’re into backyard grilling or front porch chilling, their House Lager and Sunny Ridge Pilsner are fantastic options. And although we don’t normally associate them with the craft beer movement, don’t forget that Narragansett (Pawtucket, RI) is an independently-operated brewery with a rich historical legacy.
- Worth the trip: Light Lager itself gets a bit of a bad rap in the craft beer community, but that has more to do with the business practices of the major beer companies than any particular bias against Light Lager itself. Although beer enthusiasts tend to prefer bold flavors, there’s nothing wrong with a beer that’s meant to be crisp and refreshing. There’s also an extreme amount of scientific precision needed to brew Light Lager that’s consistent from batch to batch, and doing so often requires equipment that’s simply too expensive for a small brewery to invest in. However, one of the area’s best craft breweries is setting out to bridge the gap between light beer drinkers and craft beer drinkers. Night Shift (Everett, MA) is hosting a parking lot beach party on July 2, and there will be plenty of their Nite Lite light lager to go around. They’ll also be releasing a special batch of Nite Lite aged on limes – so if you’re living the Bud Light Lime lifestyle, they’ve got you covered there too!
Pale Ale & IPA: If you started venturing into the murky waters of craft beer twenty – or even ten – years ago, you might’ve found the letters “IPA” to be synonymous with “abrasively bitter” or “boozy AF”. That’s no longer the case; the drive to innovate and explore new techniques has lead New England brewers to cook up hoppy beers that are as low as 0 IBU (which is a standardized measure of bitterness – a typical IPA would score 40 or higher) and 2.6% ABV. What a time to be alive!
- Off the shelf: If you’re the type of person that prefers to beat the heat with hoppy brews, Fort Hill (Easthampton, MA) has a couple of great options that are in wide distribution. Their Farmer’s Fresh session IPA clocks in at 5% ABV but doesn’t skimp on flavor; they’ve also rolled out a seasonal version called G-Fresh, which is brewed with grapefruit for an additional blast of citrus. You also might’ve noticed your local bottle shop advertising Lawson’s Sip Of Sunshine, a highly-rated DIPA that recently arrived to retail distribution in Massachusetts; it instantly became one of the best ‘shelf beers’ that MA retailers have to offer. However, what got a bit lost in the hype around Sip is that Lawson’s is also now distributing their Super Session IPA, which cuts the alcohol content roughly in half without compromising on the delicious hop flavor.
- Worth the trip: How could I, in good conscience, recommend anything else but a trip to Trillium Brewing’s new beer garden at the Rose Kennedy Greenway? World-class beer, a beautiful outdoor setting, and walking distance from public transportation. Although Trillium’s beers tend to run a bit on the high side of the ABV scale, their double dry hopped Fort Point Pale Ale is one of the best beers in the world – a refreshing blast of hop juice that you’ll have no problem savoring. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, they’ve also started releasing a variety of Pale Ales that are in the mid-5% ABV range as part of their ‘Small Bird’ series.
Saison/Farmhouse Ale: Saison, a farmhouse-style ale, is a reliable choice at any time of the year. The particular strains of yeast used to brew it typically impart a variety of distinctive flavors, from clove to banana to bubble gum, and a bit of a spicy, peppery kick at the end. However, most Saisons are usually in the 6-7% ABV range, which makes them a bit too strong to be considered ‘crushable’. Lighter versions of Saison are sometimes called ‘table beer’ (because they would be served with a meal – keep in mind that this was at a time when drinking water was generally unsafe) or ‘grisette’ (a French word meaning ‘gray’, because the beer would be brought to miners as a refreshment by working-class women who typically wore gray fabric). Still, for whatever reason, the sessionable Saison trend hasn’t really caught fire with Massachusetts brewers, so I’ve had to expand my reach in this category a bit.
- Off the shelf: Although it’s a rotational offering, one of my favorite examples of the style is the Hayseed Grisette by Smuttynose (Hampton, NH). It’s a delicate beer, with hints of pepper and biscuity malts that compliment the lightly fruity taste of a typical Saison, but it’s darn near perfect as a post-activity beer. Allagash (Portland, ME) has made a name for themselves over the past decade by specializing in farmhouse-style beers, and their Hoppy Table Beer is exactly what it sounds like.
- Worth the trip: I’m going to a cheat a little bit here – instead of a taproom, I’m going to recommend a trip to the best craft beer bar in the state, Worcester’s Armsby Abbey. Why? Because it’s the only place in Massachusetts where you can find Hill Farmstead on tap. Hill Farmstead is arguably the best brewery in the country, and the Vermont brewery’s Saisons are in regular rotation at the Abby. Should that be unavailable, you’ll also find Saisons from other masters of the style, such as Texas’ Jester King, on their bottle list. And if you’re already in the neighborhood, why not head a few miles down the road to Westborough and check out Cold Harbor Brewing? This summer marks the town’s 300th anniversary, and Cold Harbor has brewed up a flavorful-yet-crushable 4.8% ABV Saison to celebrate.
Sour Beers and other esoteric styles: Although it’s recently become somewhat trendy, “Sour Beer” is a fairly unappetizing way to describe something that’s often quite tasty. Most sour beer being brewed today also incorporates fruit to some extent, and which helps mitigate any lingering unpleasantness. Doesn’t tart, tangy refreshment on a hot summer day sound like a good thing? I thought so!
- Off the shelf: The two most popular styles of sour beer are Berliner Weisse, which has a sourness that’s more along the lines of rhubarb or lemon candy, and Gose, which is similar but brewed with salt to achieve an oddly satisfying aftertaste that’s somewhat reminiscent of pickle juice. In addition to their foray into Light Lager, Night Shift also has a series of fruity Berliner Weisses that can be found at most bottle shops in the area. If you’re interested in trying Gose, Lost Nation (Morrisville, VT) does a fine version that’s widely available at retailers such as Total Wine.
- Worth the trip: Aeronaut Brewing (Somerville, MA) is always top-notch, but fans of the style would be well advised to drop by the taproom and check out their rotating sour offerings. For other esoteric fare, I’d recommend a trip to the Dorchester Brewing Company in Dorchester (duh). They don’t typically offer sour beers, but they do some contract brewing for a variety of breweries, including the Swedish gypsy brewery Omnipollo. Omnipollo is one of the most creative breweries in the world, putting out intriguing mash-ups such as a Pink Lemonade IPA or Shploing!!, which is (theoretically) an IPA brewed with graham crackers, marshmallow, mango, and milk sugar.