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Heading toward St. Helena and Napa is the Calistoga Inn, home to Napa Valley Brewing Company. Brewmaster Brad Smisloff gets to showcase his brews in one of the North Bay's most scenic brewpubs, which—in addition to an indoor bar and restaurant, plus outdoor white-tablecloth seating—features a shaded beer garden past the back bar. A horseshoe court, Adirondack chairs, strung lights, and woodchip-covered ground suggest a sophisticated adult playground. And half their tap list, which included two seasonals, consisted of sub–5 percent beers.
Both their American wheat ale (4.4 percent) and Czech–style pilsner (4.8 percent) are year-round house beers. The former was especially fruity, with light huskiness from the wheat and a peach-like core, while the pilsner poured brilliantly clear and golden, with floral hop character and light notes of butterscotch rounding out the mouthfeel. But Napa Valley's seasonal Kölsch (4.4 percent) stood out as the favorite: a hint of sweetness with spicy, noble-hop notes and a toasty end.
The Kölsch style originally hails from Köln, Germany, and, perhaps even more so than many of these lighter styles, is particularly challenging to brew well. A hybrid offering, it essentially strikes a delicate balance between ale and lager brewing, requiring careful yeast management, and many American renditions tend to be overly fruity and coarsely sweet. Since we're here, Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax makes a fantastic rendition, Kent Lake Kölsch-style ale (4.5 percent). Available on tap and in bottles, it exhibits restrained fruitiness and pilsner-malt sweetness, with a soft edging of mineral-tinged hops—an archetype of summer beer.
Our last major destination for summertime sipping is far better known for its heftiest brews: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Damnation, Consecration . . . But to really understand the dedication that goes into that chalkboard of beers at Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa is to make acquaintance with the lightest offerings near its very top.
On the Belgian-style side of the board, Redemption (4.8 percent) blonde ale offers up a bready and peppery yeast character coupled with additional notes of vanilla and honey. Available in bottles and on draft, an interesting comparison is to sample the two versions side by side; the latter's tasty, but the Redemption takes on extra layers due to undergoing an additional fermentation from being bottled with active yeast. The new, limited-release Noble Experiment saison blonde (4.6 percent) is similar, though shifted toward pepper and citrusy notes.
For year-round offerings like O.V.L. stout (4.15 percent) and Aud Blonde (4.5 percent), the final results of these beers were achieved over multiple iterations: brewing batches at a somewhat higher ABV than they are now and then slowly adjusting the grain bills and recipes to dial things in. O.V.L. stout offers layers of milk chocolate and the suggestion of smoked meat, while Aud Blonde is phenomenal in its current rendering: crackery malts, spicy hops, brilliantly crisp. If you can find a seat on the patio, a pitcher of the blonde pairs perfectly with warm weather.
While space restraints necessitate trimming out some perfectly deserving sub–5 percent beers from other breweries, it's hard to imagine a summer-beer article that doesn't include Brian Hunt's Moonlight Brewing Co. The lord of local lagers, the brewer who brought you both Death and Taxes, his Reality Czeck-Style pils (4.8 percent) is simply a world-class pilsner: toasty, packed with mineral hop bitterness, and wholly refreshing. Summer wouldn't be the same without it.
Ken Weaver is a writer and editor based in Santa Rosa, whose book 'The Northern California Craft Beer Guide' with photographer Anneliese Schmidt is out this summer from Cameron + Company.