summer – the perfect time for hybrid beer
Nearly two years ago I was first digging into hybrid beer styles. I was following along the BJCP categories in order like an obedient student, and I didn’t initially understand how beers like Kölsch, alt, and a few labeled “amber” could all be related. To a novice drinker, they didn’t seem to hold much in common.
Speaking of common, California common was probably the linchpin that tied these beers together, at least for my palate. But the term “hybrid” comes from the fact that all of these beers have characteristics of both ales and lagers.
The BJCP style guidelines are undergoing a major renovation right now, so let’s just throw the book out and have a chat about these summer styles, shall we?
Hybrid beers are the platypuses of the beer world: egg-laying mammals that don’t fit into either category. Whereas the lager or ale designation sets the stage with certain expectations, hybrids span a wide range due to the fact that the yeast is fermenting at a different temperature than its optimal one. This forces the microorganisms to behave differently.
For example, look to the California Common and its gold standard, Anchor Steam. Visiting the Anchor brewery gave me a new appreciation for the manipulation of yeast and the remarkable outcomes that may result. California Common, also called steam beer, is fermented with lager yeast at a warmer temperature than is typical of lagers. Additionally, this beer is fermented in an open vessel, producing somewhat of a house character (meaning a flavor array typical of Anchor due to the beer’s environment). Very, very few American breweries use open tanks for non-sour or wild beer.
image: Anchor Brewing
For decades, Anchor was the only brewery to make this style of beer, or at least in a way that was commercially available, and in fact the company trademarked the term “Steam Beer” in 1981. California Common is considered the first uniquely American beer, granting it a prominent place in brewing anthropology. Today, a few other examples exist, although I still consider this style relatively obscure.
This summer, try Empyrean Super Nova Summer Fest out of Lincoln, Nebraska. This is a slightly hoppier version than the classic and uses Galena, Amarillo, and Cluster hop varieties. For a more traditional taste, get your hands on Local Option – their Dampf Loc showcases the interplay between pleasant caramel malts and light-bodied personality due to lagering.
Perhaps the most widely recognized hybrid style is German Kölsch and its American adaptations. Think of this style as, in a sense, the opposite of steam beer – they are created with ale yeast but are fermented very cool, or “lagered”. There is a distinct finish to these beers that is very difficult to describe – the cool temperatures mean that the yeast contributes far less to the flavor and what results is fairly dry and nearly tart (but not quite).
image: Serious Eats
Many summer seasonals nationwide are brewed in the Kölsch style, including local favorite, Summit Summer Ale. The citrus and very mild bready notes are perfect for warmer months and work well with many foods – grilled fish, fruit, or lighter cheeses. Summit adds American hops to put a twist on the traditional style. It only clocks 4.4% ABV and fills the boating beer niche.
Other popular summer Kölsch-style beers include Ninkasi’s Wunderbier out of Oregon. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on any, but it is topping some summer beer must-try lists this season. On the other hand, Alaskan Summer is often easy to find and also showcases this style, with the addition of European and pacific northwest hops.
Barely falling into the hybrid category is Standing Stone Brewery’s Commuter Gold. The ale yeast ferments around 60 degrees, only slightly lower than a typical ale. But the characteristics of a hybrid are there – subdued flavors and increased subtlety. This is a brand new seasonal from the Ashland, Oregon brewery and it is described as bright, herbal, toasted, and crisp. “We consider this a hybrid beer because it is fermented with an ale yeast at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a lower than normal temperature for ales. This lower fermentation temperature creates a more lager-like character in the beer.”
Be on the lookout for hybrids in the warmer months and see if you can pick out the brews labeled “summer” that offer both ale and lager properties.