If you’ve been perusing the grocery beer shelves much this season, you’ve probably noticed a lot of fruit flavored beer. Fruit beer isn’t a new concept– macro producers, a few US craft breweries and of course Belgian ales have made some flavor combinations common, but there’s been an exponential increase in selection recently. Why all the fruit these days, and what does the trend mean for the market?
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about some of the different ways fruit is incorporated in beer. At its most simple concept, fruit beer is just that– beer + fruit. When and how said fruit is introduced means a very different end product, however. To get into the nitty gritty of it, beer yeast is really at home working within an environment of malt sugars–that is, those that malted barley, wheat, rye, and oats contribute. In an anaerobic environment (like beer fermentation), yeast consumes these malt sugars and in turn produces our friend ethanol. Beer yeast changes a syrupy sweet liquid into a flavorful, alcoholic one. It’s awesome. Malt sugar (maltose) is longer and a more complex arrangement molecularly speaking than glucose, fructose, or sucrose. So when those types of simpler sugars are added to fermentation, yeast takes the easy way out. Our human bodies react similarly when we’re hungry–processing simpler sugars takes less energy, so it’s an obvious choice. Thus, brewers often wait until the majority of fermentation has taken place before adding large amounts of other non-malt substances like juice or whole fruit. Yeast can tire out or perform poorly otherwise.
Depending on timing, the yeast will convert some or all of the fruit sugars when added post-primary fermentation. And of course, there are yeasts that enjoy working with other types of sugars: wine yeasts, cider yeasts, mead yeasts, and mixed or wild yeasts. But when we’re speaking of beer with fruit flavors, it’s typically done with beer yeast and uses a solid malt backbone with some fruit elements on top that mesh well with the whole product. Sour or mixed fermentation beers like Belgian lambics often have fruit added along with their wild yeasts for an extensive secondary fermentation (months to years), producing a really unique product. That’s one end of the spectrum which involves long aging time and careful blending skills. Far simpler is just beer with juice or fruit flavor added. An example of this is the radler (aka shandy), usually a mix of beer and fruit soda popular in Europe. Fun fact: the word radler means cyclist in German, perhaps indicating that after a long ride, a light, somewhat sweet and refreshing beer is the most delicious choice. It only makes sense then, that Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland (a bike focused brewery) makes a radler in 16 oz. cans.
Many beer drinkers are still hesitant to choose a fruit beer. Why? Firstly, there’s a concern over the sweetness level. Some of the most predominant examples of fruit beer (usually macro products) in the last decade have been fairly sweet and unbalanced. But fruit beers don’t have to end up sweet, and the complexity of floral and fruity elements in combination with aromatic hops can make for a really interesting end product. Also: the gender factor. A lot of those same overly sweet beers have been marketed toward either novice drinkers or female drinkers, who’ve been told essentially their whole lives that they should always lean to sweet flavors and avoid bitter. It’s unfortunate, but it is changing. The concept here is that someone might gain or lose peer respect by their beverage choice. Not entirely crazy, but it overlooks personal preference, which should be more important in my opinion. Especially because now we have big fruity and hoppy IPAs, challengingly complex fruited sour beers, exotic fruits, and new flavor profiles. No one should be afraid to try new things.
Craft brewers want to stand out, be new and different and bring higher levels of flavor to consumers. It’s really tough to catch a shopper’s eye these days, and we as American consumers love experimentation and newness. There’s some speculation within the industry that the fruit trend is somewhat in response to the changing availability of certain newer trademarked hops–especially the most popular fruit-forward hops like Citra® and Mosaic®. It’s certainly a plausible analysis, but trends take on their own momentum and create their own submarkets so quickly it’s hard to be entirely conclusive.
Regardless of the reasoning, fruit beers are pushing consumer perception and challenging drinkers’ palates this season, which I think can only be positive industry-wide. As with all beer, there are going to be excellent, carefully crafted examples and shortcutted, uninteresting examples. Be discerning when tasting as always! If you’re overwhelmed, try one of the following fun examples: Uinta Brewing’s tangerine version of their Hop Nosh IPA plays with citrus and tropical hop and fruitiness. Seamstress Union, a dry and extremely refreshing seasonal raspberry wheat beer by Schooner EXACT Brewing Co. is lovely in the sunshine. Or for a more European-style mixed-culture example try Pfriem Family Brewers’s Oude Kriek, a lambic with Hood River cherries added. I’m interested to see how this trend develops over the next year’s product lines and if it continues on into fall and winter styles. You never really know here and now. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast, wherever your tastes lie.
Categories: Ingredients in the Mix