There is a thing in the beer world called the “lawn mower beer.” It’s a beer you might drink on a dog day afternoon while putzing about in the yard.
Lawn mower beers are poundable brews that won’t fill you up, weigh you down or knock you out with a sedative alcohol punch. Of course, I would never advocate drinking beer while mowing the lawn. Up here in the Land of Lakes, I’ve heard them referred to as “boat beers.”
For many — even some dedicated craft beer drinkers — the go-to lawn mower beer would be a typical American light lager. Those beers are indeed appropriately low alcohol and extremely refreshing under the hot summer sun. There are other options, though, that offer a more interesting sensory experience while staying true to the essence of lawn mower beer.
One such style is cream ale. An American invention of the mid-1800s, cream ale was created by ale brewers in response to a flood of pale lager beers that swept the country from Canada and the American Midwest. Its construction is similar to the standard American lager — pale barley malt, corn and very low levels of bitterness and hop flavor. But cream ale is typically fermented with ale yeast, giving it a softer profile and subtle fruity notes that set it apart.
A new version from Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau is named very simply Cream Ale. It presents with a pillowy puff of grainy malt sweetness overlain with a touch of corn. Low bitterness follows to cut the sweetness, making way for bright orange and tangerine hops. It’s light bodied, but the corn and initial sweetness give an impression of fullness.
Closer to home, St. Paul’s Urban Growler Brewing Co. just began canning its signature Cowbell Cream Ale. This one is crisper and less sweet than the Alaskan beer. The malt character offers layers of corn and lightly toasted grain. Hops bring citrus and herbal counterpoints, like lemon peel and sage. Moderate bitterness keeps it balanced while maintaining optimal crushability.
A standard since the early days of the craft beer movement, American blond ale was intended to lure light lager drinkers into the embrace of fuller-flavored brews. It’s typically a bit more flavorful than cream ale, especially in the area of hops, but still not as aggressive as an American pale ale.
It doesn’t get much better than Provider Ale from Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park. Hops have a slight edge over malt in this beer. Bitterness is sharp, but not too aggressive. Hop flavors center on lemon pulp, black pepper and minty herbs. Malt plays backup with delicate sweetness and a hint of toasted cereal. A stop at the Steel Toe taproom for a refreshing pint of Provider is a must-do when biking or skating on the Greenway.
Another great local option is Supergiant Golden Ale from Able Seedhouse + Brewery of Minneapolis. Malt takes the lead in this one, but just barely. The crackery flavor and gentle sweetness stays just a hair’s breadth ahead of the hops’ tangerine, lemon peel and pineapple fruitiness. The off-dry finish brings whispers of toast, tangerine and long-lingering bitterness.
Spicy and floral hop flavors kick off Summer Ale from Summit Brewing Co. of St. Paul. Citrusy high notes from a hop called Lemondrop add a bright twist along with subtle hints of pear, licorice and blackberry. All that hop sits in a light base of toasted pilsner malt. It all adds up to a quenching summer quaff.
While some may look down on fruit beers, shandy — pale lager mixed with fruit juice or tart fruit soda — is a hard-to-beat summer quencher. Served cold they are like a fruity slap in the face to snap you out of the steamy doldrums. Blending with juice cuts the alcohol to extremely low levels.
At the top of my list is Stiegl, from Salzburg, Austria, and its Grapefruit Radler. The sweet and sour flavor of white grapefruit provides the dominant note with some pithy bitterness thrown in for balance. The subtlest hint of bready malt and spicy hops is detectable underneath. At less than 3 percent alcohol it won’t leave you feeling woozy in the summer sun.
The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., of Chippewa Falls, Wis., has a summer lineup of shandys in different flavors, but the best of them is the original, lemon-flavored Summer Shandy. The smell of fresh-cut lemons greets your nose as you raise the glass. The taste follows suit, presenting fresh-squeezed lemon juice with a touch of woody bitterness as if you bit into a seed. The crisp, wheat-beer base brings a bit of sharp-edged sweetness.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.