It’s Summertime…and the Drinking is Easy.
By Leeanne Griffin
As comforting as winter warmers and heavy reds can be in the cold months, frozen concoctions and summer ales are the choice when the weather turns warm.
So as the mercury rises, it’s time to start fresh with light, crisp and even exotic libations for the sultry summer temps ahead. Worcester County’s package stores, restaurants and bars have you covered ~ wines spanning the globe, specialty craft beers and ultra-trendy tropical cocktails.
If you’re still in college, chances are your beer selection has a lot more to do with value (read: the cheapest 30-pack) than taste. But if that diploma’s already hanging on your wall and you’re nine-to-fiveing it, then you’re probably part of the fast-growing craft beer demographic, which attracts the 25-to-35-year-old age group. Once relegated to tiny shares of the beer market behind the big guns, craft beer is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s an exciting time for craft brewers; there’s a real interest in the movement,” said Sierra Nevada founder and CEO Ken Grossman, a pioneer in the craft beer industry. “We’re regaining share of the market and seeing double-digit [percentage] growth.”
Wheat beers are big for summer, the experts all agreed. Hefeweizens ~ enhanced with lemon or orange wedges to bring out the flavor ~ work as light, easy warm weather refreshers.
Favorites on tap for the summer? Sam Adams Summer Ale (a perennial winner), Wachusett Blueberry Ale, Magic Hat’s Hocus Pocus and Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest and Pale Ale.
Not to be outdone, the Anheuser-Busch company has come up with a Beach Bum Blond Ale craft-type brew, said David Fields, president of Consolidated Beverages, Inc. in Auburn. He describes it as a “pale and caramel-roasted barley malt, dry-hopped.”
The demand is so great for certain craft beers that Julio’s Liquors in Westoborough has a hard time keeping them in stock, according to Joe Santos, the store’s beer manager. One beer flying off the shelves is Dogfish Head, a light, hoppy microbrew out of Delaware, he said.
As beer drinkers’ palates start to develop, the microbrew department at Julio’s increases each year, Santos explained.
“The consumer is traveling more, and is more open to trying new things,” Santos said. “Even older beer drinkers are realizing there’s more out there.”
And beer in general is enjoying a higher, more upscale profile these days, said Fields, who notes that beer has a more sophisticated taste makeup and pairs very well with food ~ sometimes better than wine. “This is driving a real movement in the food industry,” he said.
If you guessed that wine drinkers can’t get enough of pinot grigio during the summer, you’re right. The light and fruity Italian white is a hot-weather staple at Worcester’s restaurants, particularly those with outdoor seating. Popular whites Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay also enjoy their time in the sun.
And don’t retire the reds until the leaves drop off the trees. Certain reds are surging in popularity right now reports Ryan Maloney, owner and president of Julio’s Liquors, referencing Petit Syrahs out of California, pinot noirs and merlots from Chile, and Malbecs by way of Argentina.
“South American wines are huge right now,” Maloney said, naming Pascal Toso Reserve and Norton Reserve Malbec ~ both in the $15 price range ~ as two recent favorites.
Not sure exactly what you’re looking for? At Julio’s, the answer comes in the form of a recent $250,000 in-store investment, the Angel Share Tasting Room. Forty wines are mounted on machines, enabling customers to try before they buy ~ all for free. Select bourbons, tequilas and scotches are also ready for sampling.
“We’ve got wines to fit the bill in every range,” said Maloney. “Our customers tend to be very educated ~ they know what they’re looking for.”
And they’re open to more unusual presentations, like red wine chilled to temps below 50 degrees, said Bill Brady, owner of Sonoma in Princeton.
“It’s more refreshing [for summertime],” Brady said. “Red wine doesn’t always have to be served warm.”
Big for summer at Sonoma? Red varietals said Brady, naming Mondavi as a favorite. He also mentioned that Sauvignon Blancs out of New Zealand are very popular.
At Via Italian Table, the latest addition to the Worcester Restaurant Group (of Sole Proprietor and 111 Chop House fame), the wine list is unique in that it’s 100% Italian, said Aaron Francisco, the general manager of the 111. According to Via’s website, the restaurant offers a selection of 70 Italian wines, some available by the glass.
“They’ve been selling a lot of white, a lot of pinot grigio,” said Francisco, who added that Via plans to open an outdoor deck in June.
Trends are shifting toward the exotic and glamorous, with flavors and spirits straight out of the tropics. Certain drinks and tastes are holding onto their allure, like mojitos and the still-ubiquitous pomegranate. Pear, white peach, black cherry and mango have joined the flavor mix, and muddled drinks ~ with crushed fruit and liquor ~ are heating up.
Anything with fresh fruit is a draw, said Sonoma’s Brady.
“I’m seeing traditional martinis cooling off,” he said. “Martinis infused with fruit purees are getting big, and anything with a really funky color. People are tending toward the tropical, ‘Floribbean’ flavors.”
Francisco agrees. “People seem to be having more and more fun with alcohol,” he said. “They’re going for flavor and premium liquors. They might only have one or two drinks, but they’ll get them made with the best of everything.”
New summer cocktails at Worcester Restaurant Group’s three hotspots incorporate traditional flavors with some of these hot trends, said Francisco ~ muddled oranges, white cranberry juice, sparkling wine, lemon sherbet and Limoncello liqueur.
The quintessential summer drink ~ the margarita ~ is enjoying a boon thanks to a skyrocketing interest in tequila. And few in Central Massachusetts know this surge better than South Side Grill and Margarita Factory in Gardner.
“Tequila is just monstrous right now,” said Jim Darcangelo, South Side’s bar and restaurant manager. “It’s been the fastest-growing spirit over the past seven years.”
Enthusiasts have a staggering (no pun intended) list of tequilas to choose from ~ South Side carries 71 different kinds of the notorious Mexican spirit. Darcangelo says the three most popular brands there are Sauza, Patron and Cabo Wabo, though he singles out El Tesoro Reposado as a personal favorite.
The Margarita Factory whips up a 50-gallon tank of house margarita mix every few weeks, but people also love real fruit purees like peach, mango and strawberry in their flavored ‘ritas, said Darcangelo. One bestseller, the Blackjack Margarita, blends Sauza, Chambord and sour mix, he added.
Tequila isn’t the only booze being whipped up in a blender. At the Flying Rhino in Worcester, patrons are loving the frozen Muddy Rhino (Bailey’s, Kahlua, crushed Oreo cookies and cream) and the Green Parrot with coconut rum and Midori, said Lynn Caron, a manager and bartender at the popular Shrewsbury Street hangout.
Now that you know what’s flowing for summer brews, fine wines and cocktails at Worcester’s establishments, it’s time to get your drink on. And we don’t have to remind you to always do it responsibly.
DRINKS NOT TO MISS
Via Italian Table: Two new cocktails incorporating herbs: a pear cilantro margarita and a strawberry basil vodka martini. No, the kitchen staff didn’t drop the green things in your drink by accident ~ these were concocted in the Italian tradition. “They sound bizarre, but wow, are they good,” said Aaron Francisco of 111 Chop House.
Flying Rhino: The Safari Sangria, a mix of Shiraz, Stoli Raz, Bacardi Limon, Peachtree, sour mix and Sprite. The drink is huge “all of a sudden,” said manager and bartender Lynn Caron.
South Side Grille and Margarita Factory: This one’s not for the squeamish, but if you’re looking for street cred, you can join the Worm Eaters’ Club. A twenty gets you a shot of Mezcal equipped with a worm. If you shoot it successfully, you’ll be immortalized on the restaurant’s wall. “I’ve actually seen tons of people do this,” said bar manager Jim Darcangelo.