A Flash of Brilliance
British Summer Ale
A shaft of golden light rips through a thin patch of the blotchy white sky. On the beach below, towels unfurl to reveal bumpy legs cased in vampire-white flesh, which cooks quickly to prawn pink in the hazy brilliance. Released from the dark closet of winter, seekers young and old sit and squint, dazed, mole-like, in the mossy sea air. It’s a perfect summer day in England.
And it begs for a perfect summer ale–crisp, dry, refreshing, but sturdy enough to satisfy, a lovely citric hop aroma leaps from the dazzling white meringue.
A style like this seems so right, so suited to the timeless cycle of seasons, that it’s hard to believe that summer ale is actually quite a modern creation, not yet 20 years old. John Gilbert of Hop Back Brewery created his famous Summer Lightning in the late 1980s, and it remains the standard bearer for this style.
Intensely Hopped, with Secret Ingredients
Paler than most English bitters, summer ales are likely to be a little more intensely hopped as well. Most versions hover between 4.5 and 5.0 percent alcohol. Hops have center stage, with moderate to high bitterness backing up loads of fresh, citric aroma. Late kettle additions, and perhaps even dry hopping, contribute to this forward expression of hop personality.
East Kent Goldings, with their spicy, resinous aromas, have always been the hop of choice for top-grade British beers. Challenger is a much more recently developed variety (1972). With a flavor that’s described as fruity, almost scented, with spicy overtones, it’s going to fit nicely into our recipe for a contemporary summer ale.
It’s an easy beer to brew, although true excellence depends upon top-flight ingredients. A base of British pale ale malt is the place to start. Maris Otter is generally regarded as the most nuanced in flavor, with light caramel- and nut-like qualities. A dash of pilsner malt will lighten the color and contribute a fresh, bright maltiness. I would use a little bit of unrefined sugar to add crispness without sacrificing character, and top it off with a few percent of wheat malt, which will help your beer settle into a compact, creamy head.
The possibility also exists for “secret” ingredients. British law long forbade the use of seasonings other than hops in commercial beers, a Reinheitsgebot of sorts. This law was put into effect sometime in the 1700s as a reaction to the adulteration of beers with substances–many of them toxic–intended to give beer an additional kick. But spiced beers had a long history in Britain, and the use of seasonings such as coriander, ginger, grains of paradise and others continued in private breweries up to the mid 19th century. These particular spices blend extremely well with the kind of light, breezy beer we’re talking about here, and feature in the second, mock-historical brew (below) that I’ve concocted for your amusement.
As usual, the grist for these recipes is calculated at 80 percent of laboratory hot-water extract. Your mileage may vary. Hop rates are calculated for hop pellets, so if you’re using whole hops, increase the quantities by 20 percent. Since this is a pale, hoppy beer, brewing with hard water will make the hop character harsh and tannic, not at all the effect we’re seeking here. Adding calcium chloride or gypsum and boiling, then decanting, will remove enough carbonates to save your beer from astringency. You can also dilute your hard tap water with distilled, down to somewhere 50 parts per million (PPM) of carbonate.
To make an extract version of either of these beers, substitute pale malt syrup pound for pound for the malts, then toss in a half a pound of crushed pale crystal in your kettle (in a grain bag) and remove just before it gets to a boil. Sugar and hop/spice additions remain as listed here.
Either recipe can be fermented with your favorite ale yeast, although a hop-accentuating strain, such as the one originating from Young’s, might be just the thing.
Randy Mosher is a freelance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of numerous books and articles on beer and brewing.