Spring is a tricky season for craft brewers. They must come up with a "seasonal," a beer that catches the mood of this time of year.
Other seasons are easier for the brewers to nail down. Winter beers, for example, tend to be dark and robust. Summer beers, which offer relief from heat and humidity, steer toward light and crisp notes. The fall is prime time for malty Oktoberfest lagers or their cousins, autumn ales.
But the spring is harder to categorize. Compared with other seasons, there are fewer brewing traditions to follow. The style parameters are loose, and brewers get inventive.
"It is a nice time for playfulness," observed Seamus Campbell, a Portland, Ore., author who along with Robin Goldstein wrote "The Beer Trials," a new paperback that rates 250 beers from around the world.
My survey found that in spring, local brewers fancy a variety of styles. Some go for altbiers and kolsch, styles that like the shifting spring weather shift between ale and lager brewing techniques. Others go for farmhouse ales, beers that historically were used to rehydrate field hands in Europe. All seem to step back from the heavy, high-alcohol brews of winter. Once folks roll out their lawn mowers, one brewer told me, they drink beers at the lighter end of the spectrum.
"Spring is a challenge," acknowledged Mike McDonald, the brewer at Red Brick Station and Brewpub in White Marsh, where his beers are served on tap. "You want a beer that is appealing during April showers, yet one you can reach for on one of those hot days," he said.
This spring, McDonald made an altbier, a beer that turns some of usual brewing practices upside-down. It is an ale, but it is made like a lager. The yeast of an altbier works in a colder, lager-like setting, rather than the speedier, warmer milieu that ales traditionally use, McDonald said.
The result that he is shooting for, McDonald said, "is a beer that accentuates hops, then finishes with maltiness."
Meanwhile, at Heavy Seas, aka Clipper City, Hugh Sisson said his crew recognizes that tastes in beer shift as the weather turns. "In the winter, people have been drinking those big, heavy stouts and double IPAs , and in the spring they change to a slightly lighter flavor profile," he said.
Sisson said his brewery's spring offering, Red Sky At Night Saison Ale, at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume "is not exactly low-test" but is lighter than winter brews.
Sisson also noted that a traditional springtime beer, maibock, is rarely seen these days.
"You go back 15 years, everybody and his brother was making a maibock in April and May," Sisson said. The trouble is they didn't sell, he said. One reason for the downswing, Sisson said, might be that maibock style traditionally emphasizes malt flavors. These days "the buzz" in brewing is about hops, he said.
One brewery that recently said goodbye to its maibock is Stoudt's in Adamstown, Pa. This spring, it switched its spring seasonal from maibock to Karnival Kolsch. Stoudt's head brewer, Brett Kintzer, said the kolsch, with 4.8 percent alcohol by volume, has been well received.
"There is a trend toward session beers," Kintzer said, using a term referring to beers with low alcohol content that can be quaffed in four-hour sessions without getting intoxicated. The term has been traced back to World War I England, where workers in munitions factories were allowed to drink low-alcohol beer during four-hour breaks from factory work.
Brewers said they have fun naming their spring beers.
For instance, Tom Creegan co-owner of the Brewer's Art, a Belgian-style brew pub in Baltimore, said his crew was inspired to name its Charm City Sour Cherry by gazing at the local landscape. "In the springtime, the cherry trees blossom here," Creegan said. "So cherry is a spring flavor."
The crew at Flying Dog Brewery combined a sense of French history and a penchant for puns to come up with Garde Dog. The "garde" comes from the French Bierre de Garde, a farmhouse ale. Every beer made by the Frederick brewery has "dog" in its title, and Matt Brophy , senior vice president of brewing operations, said his team could not resist.
"We loved the little play on words," Brophy said .
The march of time presents another challenge for spring beers. Already summer beers are showing up in area liquor stores, looming over the spring offerings, threatening to push them off the shelves even though it is just May.
One local brewer who is especially aware of the fleeting nature of spring is Brian Strumke . He brews most of his Stillwater brand of artisanal ales in Westminster. But he made his spring beer, called "Love and Regret," in a small brewery in Belgium during a recent visit there.
This beer, which Strumke describes as "liquid springtime," might not clear customs until June, Strumke told me. That means this spring beer might have to hurry to get to Baltimore before June 21, the first day of summer.
Recently, as the winds gusted and the dogwood blossoms fell, I gathered up a handful of locally produced spring beers. With the exception of McDonald's altbier, which I tasted during dollar-beer night (Tuesday) at Red Brick Station, all the other bottles of spring beers came from area liquor stores.
Rob's spring favorites
Ranked in order of preference:
Stoudt's Karnival Kolsch Stoudt's Brewing Company, Adamstown, Pa., 4.8 percent ABV, $10.49 a six-pack. (Bond Distributing, 410-945-5600.) A clean, sprightly beer modeled after the signature session beers of Cologne. Very drinkable.
Garde Dog Ale Flying Dog Brewery, Frederick, 5.5 percent ABV, $8.49 a six-pack. (Bond Distributing 410-945-5600.) Smooth, malty, slightly sweet. Hard to find. The brewery is out, but retail stores have some six-packs. Found single bottles at Beltway Fine Wines in Towson, and Wells Liquors in North Baltimore had some six-packs.
Dusseldorf Altbier Red Brick Station Restaurant and Brewpub, White Marsh, 5.2 percent ABV. $4.25 for 19-ounce mug. (Legends Distributing 410-325-6611 ). A fruity "old beer." Like spring, which plays between two dominant seasons, this brown beer plays between lager and ale characteristics. On Tuesday, dollar-beer night, it goes for $2 a mug.
Red Sky At Night Saison Ale Heavy Seas Brewing Company, 7.5 percent ABV, $9.29 a six-pack. (National Distributing Co., 410 724-3310.) Wheat malt and special sugar give this beer sweet, citrus notes.
Pub Dog Belgian Golden Pub Dog Brewery, Westminster, 7.2 percent ABV, $5.99 for 750 ml. (Dog Beverage Distributing, 410-848-3993.) This dog has a big nose, as in pleasing aroma. Spicy and sweet malt flavors.