DRINK / Beers of the month

THE NOTION of fresh-tasting, quenching, usually pale beers made seasonally for summer is becoming more familiar, though it is less established than the production of rich, warming, dark brews for winter.

This month, I am pleased to welcome a rare summer special from a national brewer. A new cask-conditioned draught, called simply Summer Ale, is about to arrive in several hundred of Whitbread's pubs nationally, and many free houses, and will be available until September.

It is a subtly unusual brew. Half the malt is of the lightly nutty, amber type used in a pale ale, the remainder the more biscuity, golden style employed in a Pilsner lager. It is an all-malt beer; no sugar is used. The hops are predominantly from Eastern Europe: the earthy, piney Styrian Goldings (used in some fine examples of British bitter) and the fragrant, flowery Bohemian Saaz (favoured by Pilsner brewers). The product is made with the Cotswold spring water and fruity- tasting ale yeast of the Flowers brewery (owned by Whitbread), in Cheltenham.

The end product has a solid gold colour, with perhaps a tinge of bronze; a soft, clean, lightly malty body; an appetisingly flowery, herbal-tasting, hoppy palate; and a gently drying bitterness. At a mere 3.6 per cent alcohol by volume, it demonstrates the genius of British brewers in making products of modest strength with plenty of flavour, and shows the fruitiness of an ale can be more refreshing than the roundness of a lager.

One of my favourite British beers for this time of year is another ale, Summer Lightning, stronger at 5.0 per cent, but with a firm, crisp maltiness and a surge of fresh hoppy flavours in the finish. This is made by Hop Back, established in Salisbury in 1987 by a former Watney's brewer. In Summer Lightning, he uses pale ale malt and East Kent Golding hops. In a more Continental vein, Hop Back has a fruitier (orangey?) Wheat Beer, again at 5.0 per cent, seasoned with a dash of coriander, in the Belgian fashion.

The use of wheat in addition to the normal barley malt makes for the most refreshing beers, and I have long wondered why British brewers have been so slow to adopt this style, which is very popular in Belgium and Germany.

A British pioneer of wheat beers was another Wiltshire brewery, founded in 1984 by former scientist Tony Bunce and his wife Robin, at Netheravon, on Salisbury Plain. Bunce's soft, apple-like, wheat beer has a low alcohol content of 3.2, closer to that of Berlin's more acidic and very pale Weisse ('white') beer. Inspired by the pronunciation of Weisse, it is called Bunce's Vice. The Bunces are selling to a Danish brewer and his wife, so perhaps Salisbury Plain will soon have some Scandinavian specialities.

Elsewhere in the country, the West Midlands' Enville Brewery, whose honey ale I featured recently, has now added a fruity, dryish 'white' wheat beer.

Still in the Midlands, but by the Trent, the Burton Bridge Brewery, founded in 1982 by two refugees from Ind Coope, pioneered this season's specials with its own very hoppy Summer Ale, at 3.8 per cent. This is available only during British summertime.