Lemons, limes, and the other citrus fruits have become synonymous with the concept of refreshing. You know this is true because nearly every brand of carbonated water is flavored with them.
After Samuel Adams began using lemons in its summer ale in 1996, hundreds of warm-weather seasonal beers followed suit. Today, when someone says, “Do you want a summer beer?” it usually means a lemon beer. The idea of a warm-weather brew takes inspiration from 14th-century Belgian witbiers. Traditional Belgian beers used orange and coriander, the same ingredients in Harpoon’s UFO White, a current New England warm-weather staple. A year before the Sam Summer release, Burlington, Vt., brewery Magic Hat made a summer seasonal with apricots. Three different beers, same refreshing concept.
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While new beers or breweries often get a lot of attention, what is sometimes overlooked are the many beers with staying power. I recently sampled Samuel Adams Summer, Harpoon UFO White, and Magic Hat #9 side by side. The brews aren’t perfect counterparts, stylistically speaking. Beer people get upset when you compare beers across categories. But the fact is, there are more drinkers faced with choices like this on store shelves than there are drinkers asked to parse out German Marzens.
Summer beers are subject to associations. Think beaches, sandy toes, backyard grills. Magic Hat #9 was one of my first favorites. That likely sowed the seeds for my preference for the brew. Maybe other beers have a similar hold on you.
Magic Hat describes #9 as a “not quite pale ale,” which is cute marketing, but doesn’t actually tell you much about what it is. First brewed as a summer seasonal, #9 quickly became year-round, and today makes up more than 50 percent of Magic Hat’s total sales. In this case, “not quite pale” means darker in appearance than the other two.
Poured into glasses, UFO White is the only one that’s actually July-level hazy. That one smells strongly of orange zest and wheat. You can’t miss the apricot aroma in the Magic Hat. The Sam offering is the least smelly, and the lightest in color.
UFO White is the driest, far from cloying, but with a flat finish. Sam Summer is refreshing but lingers. In addition to lemon, the beer features something called grains of paradise, an African pepper that also goes by the name Melegueta. Magic Hat #9 is lush, an apricot beer for people who didn’t know they liked apricot beer.
None of these are especially good warm, a fact that becomes apparent once the brews are removed from the bottle. All three give off a soapy smell, which after multiple tastings in various glasses I’m pretty confident is from the citrus in each, rather than the glassware. If I had to rank them in order of preference, I’d go Magic Hat (there goes my subconscious), Harpoon, Sam.
That’s not a scientific tasting, of course. Nurse a couple of these easy-drinking beers as twilight settles and don’t get too bogged down with the details.