Yesterday was the first full day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, which calls for celebration. On the equinox itself, you may have balanced eggs on end, or danced in a circle with bells on your legs, or simply admired the animated horticultural Google doodle. Today, however, it is time to update your Happy Hour beverage to match the season.
Of course, beer is good all year round. But while each of the other seasons has its own traditional brew—the light, refreshing lagers and saisons of summer, followed by Oktoberfest-style and (shudder) pumpkin beers in the fall, leading to the stouts and spiced ales of winter—picking the perfect spring beer is a little less straightforward.
In fact, what the hell is a spring beer?
"Ah, the no-man's-land of spring beers," sighed Jeff Alworth, Portland-based author of the Beervana blog and The Beer Bible (forthcoming in Spring 2015). It turns out that there is no standard, shared way to translate springiness into beer in the otherwise harmonious calendar of American craft brewing. So, Alworth told me, "for three months, breweries just do random stuff."
After nine months constrained by seasonal expectations, brewers go nuts. Depending on what you're drinking, spring could be a citrusy, Belgian-style tripel or a dark, hop-heavy brown ale—or almost anything in between.
But what about traditional Old World spring beers? You can normally rely on the Germans to have some rules about this kind of thing, right?
Not so much, Alworth replied. In a few weeks' time, of course, we'll have the Maibocks: lighter ales that look and taste more like lager than their wintry cousins, but with a substantially higher hop and alcohol content. For now, German purists are busy brewing the Märzen (literally "March beers") that they'll cellar until autumn, but they're still drinking up their darker, winter ales. And, this year, because Easter is late, there are still 27 days of Lent left to drink doppelbock, the dark, malty, meal-in-a-glass designed to sustain fasting medieval monks.
In fact, in case you're wondering, apparently it is possible to live on doppelbock alone during the 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In 2011, Iowa-based journalist and beer blogger J. Wilson consumed only Dopplebock for Lent—four pints on workdays, and five on the weekend. He lost 25 lbs and got extremely bored of dark German beers, but apparently had no trouble doing his job, which I suppose says something about journalism.
In any case, there is one European beer made specially for drinking in March: the Franco-Belgian bière de Mars. The only problem is that no one knows what it's supposed to taste like.
Like their German counterparts, pre-refrigeration French brewers typically spent March cranking out as much beer as possible before the warmer months put beer-making on hold. Called bière de garde, these malty farmhouse ales were deliberately made with a high alcohol content, so they would hold up well during storage. Today, bière de Mars gets lumped in with bière de garde in beer competition categories, but, although it was made at the same time, it was designed for immediate drinking rather than cellaring.
What's more, it was apparently quite good. An 1840 British catalogue of trade statistics dug up by Lisa Grimm of Serious Eats takes a break from its descriptions of import regulations and export volumes to note that "beer is brewed at all seasons in France, but that made in the month of March ('Biere de Mars') is the most esteemed."
But don't get too excited. Although there are a handful of beers labeled for bière de Mars on sale right now, according to The Beer Bible author Jeff Alworth, they're not authentic. "It's kind of a dead style," he told me. "I didn't even include it in my book because there are basically no extant examples."
Astonishingly, it seems as though we've managed to lose track of one of the "most esteemed" styles of beer altogether.
Daniel Fromson, writing in the spring issue of Modern Farmer, agrees that bière de Mars is extremely poorly documented, and that "defining what historical examples tasted like requires work bordering on the archaeological." But he also points out that the lack of historical precedent has a silver lining: the few American brewers who produce a bière de Mars are free to speculate, riffing on what they imagine this delicious beer might have been. Without hard facts to go on, they can just make something that they think tastes like spring.
Which brings us back to pretty much where we started: spring is the rogue season for beer, when pretty much anything goes. Alworth told me that, to celebrate the new season, he was going to crack open a bottle of Spring Reign, a seasonal-release hoppy pale ale made by Ninkasi, a Eugene-based brewery. Fromson's first beer of spring was Deschutes Brewery's Fresh Squeezed IPA, a deliciously citrusy IPA made with the trendy new Citra and Mosaic hop varieties. And I tried the Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock, and decided I won't quite be giving up food this Lent.
As I discovered, there is really no such thing as a spring beer, so why not mix a six that combines some of the more traditional Old World spring styles with their more free-ranging New World equivalents, and see which you prefer.
Bière de Mars: This can be tricky to find—most beer vendors will not have heard of it themselves. Jolly Pumpkin makes one, as does Southhampton and the New Belgium Brewing Company. I tried Bayou Teche's version, which they call Courir de Mardi Gras, and, while it was perfectly inoffensive, I wouldn't bother seeking it out again.
Doppelbock: Ayinger's Celebrator is a satisfying, dark, malty, rich beer; Jeff Alworth also recommends the Montana-based Bayern Brewing's Doppelbock, though it may already be off the shelves. Paulaner's Salvator is a fairly standard version of this type that should be more widely available.
Maibock: It's a little early for a real Maibock right now, but you can pick up some good helles bock, which is more or less the same thing. I particularly enjoyed Troeg's Cultivator, which is light but still substantial, with a lovely fruity, floral flavour to it. Alworth's favorites, Bayern Brewing, have a German brewer who makes super authentic (and award-winning) Maibock that will be available in April; Oregon's Rogue Ales also makes Maibock called Dead Guy Ale that gets rave reviews.
Spring releases: Ninkasi's Spring Reign, Great Divide's excellent Orabelle, and Ommegang's Glimmerglass have very little in common, other than that they're all new seasonal releases that are also refreshing, delicious, and somehow spring-like. Sierra Nevada's Southern Hemisphere is another interesting beer to look for in May: it uses freshly dried hops from the New Zealand harvest, so that their fall becomes our spring.
So, what will you be raising a glass of tonight?