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Summer bonfires are the best bonfires. The birds are singing, the trees are green, the flowers are blooming and the sun lingers late enough to enjoy them. And there is none of the shivering limbs and chattering teeth as you huddle around the fire's heat. It's a perfectly relaxing moment, one well-suited to pleasant socializing.

It's a moment well-suited to beer, too. A summer bonfire lends itself to a wider range of brews. Those big, boozy warming beers are still nice, but not necessary. Light, crisp lagers can find a place. Bitter, hoppy pale ales and malty ambers fit right in. And how about a smoky, German Rauchbier to complement the smell of burning wood?

Here is an assortment of beers to suit any mood during your next backyard burn.

Crisp or cozy

One of my favorite bonfire bevvies is sangria. Beer drinkers can create a similar experience with fruity sour beers. Boysenberry Slap from Duluth's Bent Paddle Brewing Co. is a dry, tart refresher. The sweet/tart character of boysenberry initially comes in the finish but becomes more pronounced as the beer warms. It reminds me of the boysenberry ice cream I loved as a kid. Pour into a big glass and load it up with sliced fruit. It will be delicious.

On a hot summer evening a light, crisp lager might be the way to go. Super Mega Lager from Drekker Brewing Co. in Fargo is just that. This straightforward American lager has low bitterness and alcohol, so it won't tax your palate or leave you feeling woozy. Light malt sweetness with hints of corn supports an easy dose of lemon and spice hops.

Doña Fría Mexican Lager from La Doña Cerveceria in Minneapolis takes the light-and-crisp approach in a richer, maltier direction. A Vienna lager with maize in the grist, it leads with smooth, toast and caramel flavors. Bitterness is moderate, letting the malt shine. It's capped with subtle grassy/herbal hops. The dry, lager finish keeps it refreshing. This is a great one for fans of malt.

Malty beers can feel just as warm and cozy as the campfire. Hokan's Brown Ale from HammerHeart Brewing Co. — formerly of Lino Lakes and now in Ely, Minn. — is just such a beer. This robust English brown ale has a velvety mouthfeel. It envelops the tongue with smooth chocolate, caramel and biscuit. A touch of black coffee/bitter roast cuts through to clear the palate in the finish.

When you're looking for something for the long haul, try Summit's Triumphant session IPA.
When you're looking for something for the long haul, try Summit's Triumphant session IPA.

Taking it slow

Let's not forget about hops. With hoppy beers and bonfires you can go in two directions — imperial IPA for a slower, relaxed vibe or session IPA for the long haul.

One of the biggest and best of the session IPAs is All Day IPA from Michigan's Founders Brewing Co. Hops are the star, but it has a fuller malt presence than most session IPAs. The pleasantly balanced profile brings a burst of fruity hop aroma that carries through beautifully into the flavor. Tropical fruit, tangerines and peaches mingle with peppery and floral notes that last into the refreshingly dry finish.

Locally, Summit's Triumphant IPA is another great go-to session IPA. Hops lead in both the flavor and the aroma, bringing tangerine citrus and mango tropical fruit. Bitterness is assertive, but doesn't get so strong as to tax your summer palate. Although hops lead, malt is not a forgotten element. Grainy malt remains prominent beneath and brings a low, balancing sweetness. The finish is dry with lingering tangerine and bitterness.

Coming in at 9% alcohol, Big Little Thing from California's Sierra Nevada Brewing is a good place to start for imperial IPA. Every element of this multilayered beer is clearly articulated and distinctly differentiated from the others. A sturdy layer of toasty and caramel malt provides a base and lovely contrast to the more than ample mango and tangerine hops. Measured bitterness is low for the style, but the extraordinary dryness gives an impression of bitterness that is much higher. Big Little Thing is remarkably light for heft, making it perfect for a summer evening's sip.

I'm of the opinion that beer can be paired with anything. So why not pair it with a fire? A traditional German Rauchbier — smoked beer — offers great complementary aromatics to the burning wood. Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche from Heller-Bräu Trum in Bamberg, Germany, is smoked with oak instead of the beechwood used for most rauchbiers. While beech delivers an intense, almost meaty smoke character, the smoke in Eiche is more subtle, woody and multilayered. It is a perfect partner with malty fullness of the doppelbock base.

The thinkers

Staring at the flickering flames can engender contemplative moments. For these times you need an equally contemplative beer, something rich and bold with deep complexity that leads you to consider every sip. A barley wine or barrel-aged beer will do just fine.

Bigfoot Barleywine from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is perhaps THE classic example of American-style barley wine. Radical when first released in 1983, it fits easily into today's beer landscape. Bigfoot is aggressively bitter. Resinous, floral and grapefruit hop flavors dominate the profile. But underneath is a luscious layer of malt that brings grainy, toffee and burnt sugar notes. Sip it slowly. The complexity grows as it warms in the glass, with low flavors of dried apricot adding to the mix. Bigfoot's season is January through April, but there are still bottles to be found in stores.

Central Waters Brewing in Amherst, Wis., has long been known for its Brewer's Reserve barrel-aged beers. Brewer's Reserve Scotch Ale is a massive 12% alcohol, bourbon barrel, Scottish wee heavy that demands slow and careful consideration. The aroma hits first with caramel, plums and dark fruits. The flavor follows suit. Caramel is the lead, like a caramel-toffee hard candy. Background hints of roasted malt cut the sweetness slightly. Bourbon is strong and brings a boozy warming to the back of the throat. This beer would be amazing with s'mores.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at