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Joe Sixpack | Summer is the time for craft beers (and fests)

SUMMER IS nearly upon us, so here's fair warning: I don't want to see a repeat of last year's sorry performance.

SUMMER IS nearly upon us, so here's fair warning: I don't want to see a repeat of last year's sorry performance.

You remember: September rolled around and your teacher asked, "What did you drink on your summer vacation, Johnny?" And all you could sputter was, "BudMillerCoors."

No excuses, pal.

The warm weather brings out the best in craft beer, with a selection of light, refreshing but full-flavored styles. Not only that, but you get to enjoy them outside, at a BBQ or a beer fest or maybe on a road trip.

Here's a cheat sheet to help you get the most out of your summer vacation.

Summer styles

WITBIER. Wheat is a big-time trend as big brewers try to catch up with Hoegaarden. That's why you're seeing all those Blue Moon (Coors) and Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat (Miller) taps.

All three are decent versions of a Belgian style known as witbier, or white beer. Typically, they're spiced with coriander and orange peel and, unfortunately, splashed with a wedge of lemon or orange.

My recommendation: Screw the fruit and try a locally made witbier like Victory Whirlwind Wit or Weyerbacher Blanche. Also notable: Southampton Double White, Wolaver's Wit (organic) and the spectacular new Dogfish Head Red & White, flavored with pinot noir juice and aged in oak.

HEFEWEIZEN. Stick your nose into the white foam of this unfiltered Bavarian wheat beer and breathe in those fruity notes. That aroma is a product of the yeast (hefe), which is unfiltered.

Though there are many American varieties, you're better off sticking with authentic Germans. My favorites are from Erdinger, Ayinger, Hacker-Pschorr and Schneider.

SAISON. More complex and full-bodied than witbier, the classic is Belgium's Saison DuPont. Lately, though, this style has caught on among better U.S. microbrewers, so try Brewery Ommegang Hennepin (New York), Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale (California), Sly Fox Saison Vos (Royersford) and Victory V-Saison (Downingtown).

Yards Saison is another local version, but this summer look for its spicier Saison's Sexy Sister floating around on area taps.

LAWNMOWER BEER. Your basic, ice-cold American lager always tastes better after a day of yard work. Grab a case of Pennsylvania-made Stegmaier 1857 (its 150th year!) for just $18.57. Even cheaper: Lionshead Deluxe Pilsner.

FAVES. We all have our go-to's. These are mine each summer: Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale, Troegs Dreamweaver Wheat and Victory Prima Pils. This year, I'm going to add: Brooklyn Local 1, Flying Dog Woody Creek White and Weyerbacher Muse.

MIXED BATCH. Can't make up your mind? Try the Samuel Adams summer selection, a 12-pack with six different warm-weather styles, including three wheat beers (give the Popsicle-like Cherry Wheat to your kid sister). Saranac's 12 Beers of Summer includes a new Pomegranate Wheat.

Hit a festival

You've already missed a couple of big-time fests, but some of the classics are still to come.

* Tomorrow. 8th Annual Brandywine Valley Craft Brewers Festival. I confess, I haven't hit this one, featuring 25 regional craft breweries, but I'll be there this year. Tix: $35, 1-5 p.m., 610-627-9000.

_ May 24-26. The Session Summer of Love Fest is three days of low-alky beers and BBQ in the boonies at Ortino's Northside (1355 N. Gravel Pike, Zieglersville). Tix: $40, 610-287-7272.

_ June 9. The annual Stoudt's Microfest (Stoudt's Brewery, Adamstown, Pa.) is a can't miss wurst-music-and-suds blast. Noon-4 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Tix: $27, 717-484-4386.

_ June 16. The Harrisburg Brewers Fest in downtown Harrisburg has two sessions this year to accommodate more beer fans. Tix: $30 ($35 at the door). Noon and 5 p.m.,

_ June 23. The Garden State Craft Brewers Festival sails again on the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront. Tix: $35, 1-5 p.m, 856-966-1652.

Beer travel

Wanna kill an afternoon? Head out to Zern's Farmer's Market (1100 E. Philadelphia Ave., Gilbertsville) in Berks County for flea-market bargains, auctions and food. Cross the parking lot for a quick draft and wings at Ryan's Grill & Tavern, then head eight miles west to Union Jack's on the Manatawny (546 Manatawny Road, Boyertown), where you'll find an astounding beer selection (17 taps, 300 bottles) and excellent grilled food on a creek-side deck. Wanna go farther? You can be in scenic Cooperstown, N.Y., in just four hours for a day of nostalgia at the Baseball Hall of Fame and a visit to Brewery Ommegang. This Belgian-style farmhouse brewery hosts events all summer, including Belgium Comes to Cooperstown on July 21. Info: www.ommegang.

com. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit Send e-mail to