10 Best Lawnmower Beers of Spring 2013

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Before beer lovers go slurring a canned, light, low-alcohol beer as "lawnmower beer," push a mower around for an hour or so on an 85-degree day and then tell us what beer you want sip on to help the job along.

We've really never understood the phrase "lawnmower beer" since, quite frankly, a beer is probably the worst thing you can have under the conditions described above. We do understand its origins, though. In early American suburbia, it wasn't uncommon for the newly minted homeowner to take to their tiny plot of earth on a weekend morning with one hand on the mower and the other wrapped around a can of Pabst, Ballantine, Stroh's, Schaefer, Narragansett, Rainier, Olympia or whatever was on hand. They're not thought of as great beers today, but in their original formulations they were light and refreshing without being reduced to yellow rice-fed fizz.

They were the offspring of what the English called "small beers," low-alcohol brews workers could drink to keep refreshed and not have to worry about working while impaired. In Belgium, it was known as saison -- which was drunk by farmhands and was the low-alcohol predecessor to today's far more potent beers of the same name.

In early spring, however, when the temperatures are still fairly mild and the grass and dandelions in more temperate climates are starting to grow with impunity, it's great lawnmower beer weather. With more than 2,400 breweries operating in the U.S. today, there's a much broader selection than there was during America's mid-century mowing heyday and more breweries than there have been in 125 years.

That's a lot for a weekend yard laborer to choose from, which is why we're going to lay down some ground rules for modern lawnmower beer. First off, it should be in a can. It's small, it travels well, it's better at keeping the sun out than glass and enough smaller brewers have embraced it that the site Craft Cans, which documents canned craft beers across the U.S., is up to 956 entries.

That said, there should definitely be an alcohol limit on said beers. As the 10.5% alcohol by volume of Colorado-based Oskar Blues' Ten Fidy imperial stout and the 11.5% ABV of San Francisco-based 21st Amendment's appropriately named Lower De Boom barleywine show, not every canned beer is a great lawnmowing beer -- unless you're mowing the lawn at Antoni Gaudi's place. Since beers such as Budweiser, Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon draw a direct lineage to those lawnmower beers of yore, let's use their 4.7% to 5% ABV as a base and work down from there.

Finally, the beer should be refreshing. Not too malty, not overly hoppy and not sickeningly fruity. Put all those elements together and you have yourself the ideal beer for mowing a park or a postage stamp. With those criteria in mind, we picked 10 beers that bring back some pride to the "lawnmower beer" label. If your favorite is missing, be a good neighbor and share it with us:

10. Caldera Brewing Lawnmower Lager

Style: American light lager

ABV: 3.9%

We promise this is the last beer with "lawnmower" in the name, but it's tough to leave a can of lager this light and refreshing off the list. Straight out of Ashland, Ore., this brew knows a thing or two about pesky Pacific Northwest growing patterns and the grass, dandelion, thistle, laurel and invasive blackberries that get into fighting shape around this time of year. This see-through beer is a tough fit for the craft label, as it's made with flaked rice to fill it out and tamp down its bite, but it's a lovely, lacy pilsner with just enough local Willamette Hops to let drinkers taste it. A bit hazier than the beers it's based on, but that 3.9% alcohol content means you can enjoy more of them without making a mess of your lawn.

9. 21st Amendment Bitter American

Style: American Pale Ale

ABV: 4.4%

The monkey in the space suit on the can should give you some idea of where all this is going. San Francisco's 21st Amendment bills this as a session beer, even though that term usually applies to beers with 4% alcohol by volume or less, but it has a far more full flavor that its lightweight name and alcohol content let on. The Warrior and Cascade hops come through with just enough bitterness to make it feel like an IPA twice its size, but not enough to let the puckering flavor linger for too long. Remember, we said lawnmower beer should be refreshing, which Bitter American is. That doesn't mean it should be flavorless.

8. Avery Joe's Premium American Pilsner

Style: American Pilsner

ABV: 4.7%

In this case, this is your grandparents' beer. The guy in the fedora on the can should have told you. Quite frankly, when you hear descriptions of what the old legacy beers used to taste like in the 1940s and 1950s, it sounds a whole lot like this bitter, dry, floral brew here. Boulder, Colo.'s avery uses just enough Noble German hops to keep their flavor and scent above water, but makes it all subtle enough to withstand a long session in the tall grass.

7. Revolution Brewing Bottom Up Belgian Wit

Style: Witbier

ABV: 5%

When Americans think witbier, they tend to think of either cloudy, citrusy mass-market brews such as Coors-brewed Blue Moon and Anheuser-Busch InBev's Shock Top or tall glasses of brawnier craft varieties such as Celis or Allagash. Rarely does the term "lawnmower beer" spring to mind. Chicago's Revolution Brewing does, however, and stuffs all that great coriander and Curacao orange flavor into a low-alcohol brew tamed by pilsner malt. It still smells citrusy, but doesn't overpower with sweetness and spice.

6. New Belgium Shift

Style: Pale lager

ABV: 5%

Released just last year, this mild brew is a take on what New Belgium's brewery workers at its Fort Collins, Colo., facility would drink as their end-of-shift beer. With the haze and hoppiness of a pale ale and cold, smooth finish of a lager, shift is one of New Belgium's more understated offerings. The poor sap with the lawnmower isn't the first person you think of when you're trying to replicate Belgian beers for an American audience, but workers tend to think of other workers when brewing the end-of-day beer. Here's to the fruits of their labor rewarding the fruits of yours.

5. Founders Brewing All Day IPA

Style: India Pale Ale

ABV: 4.7%

An IPA without the high alcohol content or excessive bitterness? Yes, please. The folks in Grand Rapids, Mich., recognize that there are some folks out there who love the taste of an IPA, but have to put one down every so often to perform tasks that require their full attention and a healthy respect for heavy, rotating blades. Founders caught some very geeky flak for suggesting that this 4.7% ABV IPA was a session beer, but this is about as sessionable and lawnmower-appropriate as canned IPA gets.

4. Brooklyn Summer Ale

Style: American Pale Ale

ABV: 5%

The great thing about having a brewmaster with knowledge as deep and dense as Brooklyn's Garret Oliver is that there's a great history and story behind each brew. Within those bright yellow-and-blue cans is a modern interpretation of the "Light Dinner Ales" brewed in England throughout the 1800s right up until the 1940s. Those small beers were also called "luncheon ales" or even "family ales," because they were refreshing and flavorful without being too heavy.The mix of English barley malt and German and American hops gives its a citrusy IPA scent but a bready English ale flavor. It's an extremely pleasant beer to spend the day with.

3. Tallgrass Pub Ale

Style: English Mild Ale

ABV: 4.4%

During the heady microbrew surge of the 1990s, it looked like brown ale -- not IPA -- would be the trademark of America's small brewers. But tastes changed and palates that once drifted toward Newcastle now crave flavors a bit more challenging. Still, there was a smooth, easy-drinking quality to that English-style brown ale that some brewers have been loath to let do. Kansas' Tallgrass captures the flavor progressive beer lovers once adored and added a hint of chocolate to make its Pub Ale. It's inoffensive without being a malty mess and is still light enough to make a lawnmower consider a second, even if he or she doesn't finish another 16-ounce tallboy.

2. Stevens Point Brewery Drop Dead Blonde

Style: American Blonde Ale

ABV: 3.5%

If you're faced with a finicky yard worker who's trying to expand beyond light lagers and pilsners but doesn't want to go too crazy with craft beer, a blonde is a pretty good gateway. Smooth, hazy and filled with just enough hops to distinguish it from milder brews, the blonde seems like just the beer that a brewery in Stevens Point, Wis., could offer a home state steeped in lager and pilsner history and tradition. Forget the pinup on the label: It's the sweet aroma and scant 110 calories that will draw in even the most stubborn lawnmower beer enthusiast.

1. Asheville Brewing Rocket Girl

Style: Kolsch

ABV: 3.2%

You want the perfect lawnmower beer style? We give you kolsch. Born in Cologne, Germany, and developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Kolsch is a warm-fermented, lagered brew that's less bitter than other German lagers Americans are somewhat more accustomed to. While American brewers have embraced the style in recent years, few have seen fit to put it in cans. It comes as little surprise that a brewer in Asheville, N.C. -- which teems with craft breweries and outdoor activity -- would not only can one, but give it alcohol content low enough to be enjoyed more than once. Thank Cologne, but thank Asheville Brewing for making its Kolsch the most respectable lawnmower beer available.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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