Once upon a time not so long ago, fruit beer was a novelty. Fruit beers weren’t tremendously popular, and no one was lining up to buy them. Skip ahead to the decade of the 2010’s and it appears like every brewer, big and small, competent and not nearly so, is on the fruit beer act. Mainstream brewer Michelob, about as famous for quality beer as Drew Barrymore is for Oscar-winning acting, brews a Dragon Fruit Peach. Tuborg has a Booster Strong. The Negev Brewery in Israel sells a Passion Fruit Beer. Fruit beer has become so popular as of late that Portland, Oregon, America’s brewing capital, now hosts an annual fruit beer festival in June.
Why the immense popularity of fruit beer all of the sudden?
To set matters straight, all of a sudden actually means twenty-five years. And fruit beers don’t enjoy some exclusive popularity boost. The proliferation in new breweries out to prove themselves brought to the fore many previously obscure beer varieties like Berliner Weisses, pale ales, and quadrupels. Fruit beers just came along for that ride.
Adding unusual ingredients to a long established product is always a surefire way to garner fresh attention. The 1980’s saw the birth of gourmet pizzas. Standard pepperoni, sausage, and onion gave way to tandoori chicken, seafood, and feta on the crusts. In the 2000’s, it was chocolate’s turn, with hibiscus root and popcorn and potato chips as fillings instead of the usual fruit & nuts. While adding fruit to beer is nothing new, the range, the type, and the amounts have been pushed to levels heretofore unimagined in historical brews.
Fruit beers, for the record, never enjoyed worldwide popularity. The Belgians were fond of them, mostly in the form of lambics. Lambics were a dominant style in the Brussels area in the nineteenth century and started to gain some traction in worldwide popularity after the 1897 World’s Fair in Brussels. But just two decades later, Bavarian beers stole the throne. Adhering to the ‘purity’ of the German Purity Law became some kind of unofficial yardstick by which a beer’s quality was measured. As the addition of fruit to a beer compromises the 500 year old law, “serious” brewers steered clear.
A lot of the newfangled ingredients ending up in beer – chocolate, chili, coffee – are like Thai basil chicken as a pizza topping. No big deal or effort to give it a try and see if it works. Fruit additions are more complicated. Stalks of lemongrass don’t attract bacteria and pests like vats of sliced fruit do. Fruit flies are naturally drawn to the smells of ripe and rotting fruit. Fruit introduces a stroke of the unsanitary to a brewing process which must keep bacterial intruders at bay. Fruit brings with it microorganisms that can easily contaminate a beer.
Imparting the fruit flavor to the beer also isn’t so straightforward. When you want your tea to taste like ginger, you boil ginger in the water. Easy. No complications. It doesn’t matter so much if you add the ginger before the water boils or after. But timing determines everything when it comes to fruit in beer. Sweetness from sugar is what gives fruit its signature taste, and yet during fermentation – if you add the fruit before this time — most, perhaps all, of the sugar from the fruit and from all other ingredients will be consumed by the yeast. Fruit added pre-fermentation can leave the beer with a subtle background fruit flavor which could be just the ticket for a particular brew. But most of the time, a subtle fruit flavor isn’t what the brewer is after.
Beers with a stronger fruit taste typically have the fruit added after fermentation. A kilogram of fruit per 19-20 liters of beer imparts a very strong fruit flavor to the beer, but the ideal amount of fruit depends, naturally, on the style of the beer to which the fruit is being added and the fruit being used For example, an American adjunct lager will require less cherries to make an impact than a Russian imperial stout. Raspberries are bolder and make more of an impact per cupful than strawberries. Beers made with specialty malts provide more flavor competition for the fruit, and larger quantities of fruit must be added to compensate. This is why fruit beers are lightly hopped, to keep yet one more ingredient from taking attention away from the fruit.
In our waking life, we’ve been taught that fresh ingredients are always best. A blueberry pie advertised as being made with freshly picked blueberries is more of a draw than another pie made with canned blueberries or purees. In the world of brewing, fruit purees, made from real fruit, could actually be the better bet. Fresh fruit is the most expensive and also the most variable. For a beer to soak in a fruit’s flavor, it must be exposed to the fruit’s insides. You can dice your fruit, but this still keeps much of the surface area of the fruit unexposed. A fruit puree, sort of like liquid fruit, insures that more of the fruit gets that exposure.
Fruit extracts can also be used and often are in cheaper mass produced beers. Michelob’s Ultra Fruit Pomegranate Raspberry, you can be certain, isn’t being produced with fresh pomegranate and hand-picked raspberry. Fruit extract beers have the disadvantage that the fruit’s aromas and taste seem artificial – think more of an artificially flavored alcoholic fruit soda here. Sourcing a quality fruit extract at an affordable price can be difficult, and more often than not, the best tasting fruit extract doesn’t have the most authentic aroma and vice versa. For those dabbling with less pricey extracts, it’s best to use two types, one for taste and one for aroma, and mix and match to create the best combination.
Oddly, fruit beers are thought of as a brewing style for beginners, likely because fruit added after fermentation covers up the rough edges in a mediocrely brewed base beer. An amateur uses the fruit to hide some of his mistakes. In point of fact, brewing a fantastic fruit beer is quite difficult, requiring the brewer to first brew a magnificent beer and then know when to add the fruit at the ideal time and in the ideal amount to complement what’s already there.
Most of us would do better to order a fruit salad, then a beer.