Saturday, January 12, 2008

Something about "lawnmower beer" from the summer of 2007.

(Originally published in Food & Dining magazine in 2007)

Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime.
--Isaac Asimov

What sort of beer might the denizens of Asimov’s nostalgic borough have been drinking on the stoop during a hot summer’s night? Probably Schaefer or Rheingold, both local lagers at the time, or maybe even Ballantine Ale, which as a top-fermented beer would have been far rarer.

There is no surviving evidence that either Belgian-style Wit or Bavarian Hefe-Weizen were being recommended by newspaper columnists as ideal seasonal ales suitable for varying the routine, although there may well have been immigrants who recalled these styles from their childhoods abroad.

Today many of us are aware of expanded beer choices, but sadly there remain links between 1930’s-era fans hopping from a street car to queue for Ebbets Field bleacher seats and their grandchildren in 2007, multi-taskers buying advance tickets by cell phone off the Internet and arriving for the big game at Dodger Stadium in a fully-equipped SUV. Most beer drinkers still are brand-loyal, mechanically opting for the same mass-market golden lager beer that they always drink, rain or shine, heat or cold, indoor or outdoor.


The ubiquity of air conditioning quite honestly leaves me perplexed as I consider the genre of “lawnmower beer,” a stylistic umbrella term that playfully implies a brew suitable for the climactic extremes of summertime – lighter in body, milder in flavor, lower in alcohol, and more quaffable overall – while not specifying style.

Lest the disclaimer police intervene, “lawnmower beer” is not intended as the subliminal suggestion to drink gallons of it while actively engaged in the task of cutting grass, even if the padded seat situated atop the whirling blades of vegetation suppression comes equipped with a handy cup holder, designer huggies and perhaps even a dorm fridge in the sidecar.

Still, it does assume proximity to uncomfortable elements and those diverse warm weather outdoor venues for enjoying beer -- ballparks, patios, backyard barbecues and picnics – even if by now far more of my favorite beverage is being consumed inside where it’s cool, rather than outside in the encroaching aftermath of global warming.

Air-conditioned or open-air, when it comes to “lawnmower beer,” the styles preferred by the author more closely resemble the higher octane of liquid poured into the fuel tank as opposed to analogies with refreshing splashes from the garden hose when the clipping’s all through. Fortunately for this edition’s pay packet, there is a case to be made for friendly seasonal beer styles, at least as long as you save the fruit wedges for rum drinks. Please.

Ales made with wheat.

Apart from a few high-gravity specialties, the use of wheat alone almost axiomatically implies a “lawnmower beer.”

If based on the Belgian brewing tradition, wheat ale will be light-bodied, cloudy golden, and spiced with coriander and orange peel. Not unexpectedly, these ingredients yield a citrusy, consummately refreshing character. Common examples include Hoegaarden and Wittekerke, both imports, and Upland Wheat, a superior regional microbrew from Bloomington, Indiana.

German-style wheat ales are cousins to the Belgian, yet very different; generally unfiltered (“Hefe-”), golden but sometimes brown (“Dunkel”), and redolent with distinctive flavors of clove and fruit that derive entirely from the strain of yeast used to ferment them. Having traveled in Bavaria, I tend to stick to the imported Teutonic classics: Franziskaner, Weihenstephaner, Erdinger, Tucher, and my personal favorite, Schneider.

Closer to home, if microbrewed wheat ale is not otherwise tagged as Belgian or German, chances are it is what we now refer to as “American-style” wheat, fermented with ordinary ale yeast not specifically cultured for the nuances that identify continental variants. These wheaties come to your glass as designed, to be light, inoffensive, effervescent and quaffable, and so many competing brands exist – and there is so little difference between the bulk of them – that I’ll mention only one: Bell’s Oberon.

Inevitably, there is a degree of overlap between these categories. For instance, the presence of the “Hefe-” prefix on the label of microbrewed wheat ale emphatically does not guarantee that it was brewed with characteristically toothsome German wheat yeast, although in my view it should. Rather, the word in this context should be taken to imply unfiltered wheat ale brewed with regular ale yeast.

Toward refreshingly hoppy.

During the past quarter century, American microbrewers have established a reputation for improvisational exuberance, and among the very first instances of this willingness to expand boundaries is a style that many “extreme beer” aficionados now regard as quaint and almost dull: American Pale Ale, which adapts English traditions to contemporary, and primarily West Coast, indigenous ingredients. There is a vestige of similarity to the aforementioned Ballantine of old.

Gravities are modest, with alcohol contents rarely approaching 6%. Malt bills are simple, and hardy yeasts perform their conversion miracles quickly, leaving a medium body with a fruity and lightly toasty backbone. Bitterness is restrained, but floral hops like the Cascade variety offer piney, citrusy notes. If you taste grapefruit, it’s purely intentional, and it makes American Pale Ale a reliable thirst quencher on sultry afternoons.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains a viable, dependable yardstick, but don’t stop there. Most microbreweries have contestants in a similar vein, including these:

BBC APA … founding brewer David Pierce’s Louisville classic (KY).

Schlafly Dry-Hopped APA … a shade milder than Sierra (MO).

Stone Pale Ale … surprisingly balance from an “extreme” brewer (CA).

Bell’s Pale Ale … not as notorious as Two Hearted (MI).

Rogue Juniper Ale … hopping augmented by juniper berries (OR).

In the name of science alone.

In early June, still resisting the budget-busting “cool” setting on the thermostat, I resolved to conduct an experiment. Proceeding eagerly to the refrigerator science lab, a 9% Ettaler Curator Doppelbock from Bavaria was produced. Would I be able to somehow choke down such a heavy, malty, challenging dark lager in overheated, sticky, pestilential conditions?

Yep. Not a problem at all.

Then again, I pay some other guy to mow the grass – and from the second floor window, he looked positively overheated.

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