Fruit beers

The sun's out, so it's time to put those soupy imperial stouts in the cupboard and get your fruit on


Summer is here and the sun has come out to play (at least, while we write). Cue strawberries and cream in front of the tennis, stolen blackberries on a countryside walk, orange-flavoured lollies sat on the beach and beer, glorious beer. Fruit and beer are a delightful combination, and we’re not the first to notice. Neolithic Chinese villages created a beverage made up of honey, rice, hawthorn fruit and grapes over 9,000 years ago, and since about 1500 BCE, Egyptians celebrated “The Festival of Drunkenness” by indulging in beer dyed red with pomegranate juice in honour of the ferocious lion goddess of war, Sekhmet.

Belgian fruit beer is a much more modern invention: records show brewers buying up sour cherries in the 1700s, while raspberry and peach varieties were more of a nineteenth and twentieth century thing, respectively. Today craft brewers use their powers of experimentation to come up with all sorts of fruity concoctions, moving away from the sugary, syrupy kinds of the late 1900s. The many varieties employ a wide range of recipes, techniques and methods, so settle down with a blue push pop (because everyone knows that blue equals raspberry) and take a look at how to make fruit beer.

Pick your own

Choosing what fruit to go with what beer is the first step to brewing a fruit beer. For an IPA, the most popular fruits are those that accentuate either the citrus or tropical character of their hops. For example, Amarillo, Cascade and Simcoe have citrus notes that pair really well with grapefruit or blood orange. Tropical-tasting hops include Citra, Mosaic and Summer Cross, so these would work with mango or pineapple. Autumnal ingredients like plums and blackberries compliment the richer flavours and aromas of dark porters and stouts, and sour cherries are the classic addition to a lambic, making kriek beer. The newly rich and diverse range of sours invite an infinity of fruity playfulness, from limes, to blueberries and beyond.

Whole, mashed or smashed?

Whether you use fresh fruit or concentrated purée will have an impact on the end result. Fresh fruit retains all of its taste and aroma that may have been lost in processing, but its seasonality restricts when you can brew with it. Washing and pitting fresh fruit is time consuming, and of course the microorganisms it harbours can multiply when submerged in wort, presenting a whole host of potential off-tastes. The alternatives - concentrates, purées or juices - are packaged sterile and so provide peace of mind when it comes to contamination. An in-between option is to either freeze fresh fruit when available, or buy in frozen when needed. (The bonus with this is that freezing ruptures cell walls, which allows the fruit to release its flavours into the beer more rapidly when brewed with.) Things to watch out for: added sugar, as it means more of a product is needed to get enough flavour. Added acids can contribute a slight tang that can be unpalatable, and preservatives may interfere with yeast.

Throwing it in with the grains

Fresh fruits can be added to the mash, just cut up and stirred into the grains. The sugars and fruit flavours will dissolve into the mash and be drained along with the wort. When the wort is boiled yeasts or bacteria that have piggy-backed in on the fruit will be killed, a big plus, but so too will much of the fruit aroma, a big drawback. Another is that the fruit flavour may have a “cooked” quality about it, so although adding fruit to the mash is safe and convenient, it’s not always the best option. The exception is for pumpkin ales, where the flavour desired is that of the cooked fruit.

A nice, hot bath   

Whether it’s before, during or after the boil, fruits can be steeped in hot wort. If it’s fresh fruit then it’s placed in a nylon bag either whole or in pieces, much like a giant tea bag. Fruit can also be added directly to the wort, and whereas fruit in a bag is simply lifted out, this can remain to be siphoned out as the wort goes to the fermenter. Fruit concentrates, purées and juices are added after the boil but before the wort is cooled below 160°F. One drawback to this method is that the fruit will absorb some of the wort and lower the volume, so necessary balancing adjustments need to be made, either by adding water at the fermenting stage or boiling a slightly larger volume of wort.

Ferment it up

The best time to add most fruits is at the secondary fermentation stage. It avoids that sticky “cooked” flavour and subtle fruity aromas are retained. Whole fruit should be washed thoroughly and have all the stems, leaves, pits and seeds removed, then either mashed or chopped up in a food processor to release as much of the fruit sugars and flavours as possible. The puréed fruit is then added to the secondary fermenting vessel(s) and the beer siphoned on top of it. Non-fresh fruit is simply stirred in with the beer. Note that some brewers don’t like to add fruit to the secondary fermentation because the resulting mini-fermentation (from the added fruit sugars) may bubble over, and so prefer to add it to the end of the primary fermentation (adding too early could upset the sugar balance during the initial part of the fermentation process). A secondary fermentation is still required after this to allow the fruit sediment to settle out.

Without the sterilising action of the boil, there is a risk of contamination but generally, beer that’s gone through primary fermentation has enough alcohol and a low enough pH to discourage the growth of contaminating bacteria and fungi. To be on the safe side, some brewers will use sulfur dioxide to sterilize fresh fruit, a method taken from the winemaker’s handbook. SO2 will sterilise any microbes living in or on the fruit, and since it’s an antioxidant, it won’t let the fruit brown while this is happening, keeping the fruit as fresh as possible until it’s fermentation time. Pasteurisation and freezing are the alternatives - apart from just doing nothing and hoping for the best. If that’s the case, it’s double important for the fermentation vessel to be sealed tightly, as the presence of oxygen in air can cause microorganisms to grow on the fresh fruit bobbing along atop the beer.

Clarify that colour

Fruit beers show off some of the most vibrant parts of the spectrum: bright reds, golden ambers and deep purples. To get the most out of this display, beer should be as clear as possible. The biggest enemy of this goal is chill haze, or rather the protein/polyphenol (tannin) complexes in beer that cause it. Most fruits contribute tannins to beer since it’s found in the skins, giving colour to the fruit. PVPP (Polyclar AT) and similar agents can be used to fine for tannins, but this will also take away the fruit colour and flavour of the beer. A better option is to minimize the protein level in the base beer. Irish moss is great for this, as is silica gel, since they target proteins of the size that cause chill haze, but not those that cause head retention. The other way to reduce chill haze is to store the fruit beer cold for at least a couple of weeks — but preferably a month or so — after kegging or bottle-conditioning. Like with non-fruit beers, this will cause the compounds responsible for chill haze to sediment out of the beer, along with most of the leftover yeast. A benefit of this conditioning time is that the fruit flavours will have time to blend more completely with the base beer flavours.

Cheaters ever prosper?

Brewing supplies companies sell fruit extracts that you can just mix into beer at the bottling or kegging stage. These often come across as overly sweet, artificial and unintegrated, but they’re a quick way for a homebrewer to add a fruity flavour to their brew. Another shortcut is to simply mix unfermented fruit juice with beer, which is really just a shandy or in Germany, the more grown-up sounding Biermischgetränke.

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