When it comes to summer beer, habit usually dictates plunging your hand into an ice-filled cooler for a bottle of the watery domestic swill you drink all season. There's no reason to do away with this tradition – it is the perfect, pleasurable barbecue and poolside brew – but there are other, more refined approaches. Of course, it's the Germans we look to for guidance. Their answer: Kölsch, a light ale from the northern German city of Cologne, which will fast become part of your warm-weather drinking.
Kölsch is the ultimate summer beer because it is layered with faintly sweet, soft malt character and a finish that is crisp, grassy, and a bit floral. Light in body, it's ideal with grilled meats, fairly low in alcohol – generally under 5 percent, like a PBR – and is technically a pale ale, meaning its yeasts work from the top of the tanks, giving it a touch of the fruity mojo that brewers refer to as esters.
Not surprisingly, the best way to drink Kölsch is, like in Cologne, at a Kölsch Kneipe, or corner bar, where the beer is poured into the straight-sided, 7-ounce glasses built for quick drinking – so the beer doesn't warm in your hand – and mandated by the Kölsch Konvention (we're not kidding), an agreement brewers signed in Cologne in 1986. It's then served on doughnut-shaped trays, which will be restocked again and again and again without asking.
There are a few American pubs exacting enough to re-create this experience, right down to the serving trays, but you can do it just as easily at home. Simply buy a crate of the thin, straight glasses [$13.95 per dozen; leevalley.com], and get a few cases of the beer. You can purchase imported German Kölsch, like Gaffel and Reissdorf, but freshness is essential for this beer, and so a domestic brew will likely be better.
Insurgent American brewers are reinventing Old World classics all over the country on draft, in bottles, and even in cans. One of the most widely available on draft and in bottles for Westerners, especially, is Alaskan Summer Ale, brewed in Juneau using water from nearby glaciers. It's got the perfect mix of bready flavor and lightly lip-smacking hops. And because we love nothing more than a cold-canned beer (they can't break and won't skunk out in sunlight), Rocky Mountain mainstay Steamworks of Durango offers up the cracker-crisp Colorado Kölsch in cans. From the Midwest, we suggest the bright, golden Goose Island Summertime. Easterners: Harpoon's uber-refreshing Summer Beer is an ale made for those long summer days and nights if ever there was one.