Fruit beers are good again

Photo by Jeff Baker.
Photo by Jeff Baker.

Just about a year ago, I found myself admitting to the world that I had embraced shandies and radlers, those simple blends of beer with either lemonade or grapefruit juice respectively. I had long written them off as mere “fruit beers,” lumping them together with the sticky sweet and artificially flavored mass-produced blueberry ales of the early 2000s. But that all changed for me last summer when brewers started releasing new fruit beers on a large scale which contained actual fruit.

I’ve always been open to trying new fruit beers, but time and time again I have been disappointed. Some were sweetened to the point of being sweeter than the actual fruit they contained, while some contained no fruit at all, relying on “natural” flavors. The worst offenders contained artificial sweeteners and dyes, things which should never be found in beer in this writer’s opinion.

In 2014, I attributed the resurrection of the shandy to the collective palate shift towards citrusy hop flavors and a desire for less bitter and lower alcohol brews. These juice-infused thirst-quenchers opened the door for brewers to release new serious beers containing real fruit. Citrus-infused IPAs led the charge this summer (see Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin IPA) with other styles following suit.

Of course, there has always been a category of fruit beers that I never lumped in with the fake junk: sour ales. Traditional brewers have long used the natural sugars found in fruits like cherries and raspberries to compliment the acidity produced by wild yeasts like lactobacillus & pediococcus. The best examples have always come from Belgium’s Lambic producers, but US-based brewers are quickly catching up in this category. Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, VT) & Crooked Stave (Colorado) are two breweries making some of the best fruited sour ales in this country.

Sour ales have their place, but I find it difficult to drink more than one. The acidity has a way of building up on my palate, plus the price tag can be foreboding so casual sipping.

I’ve really been enjoying this new wave of fruity, but dry (meaning not sweet) fruit beers when I’m looking for something thirst quenching and sessionable, Below are are few of my favorites this season that are available in Vermont.

Burlington Beer Co. (Williston, VT) recently issued this year’s release of “Strawberry Whale Cake.” The inspiration for this American Cream Ale is brewer/owner Joe Lemnah’s love of strawberry shortcake.  It’s loaded up with locally-grown strawberries from Sam Mazza’s Farm Market (Colchester, VT), providing subtle juiciness to balance out a touch of malt sweetness. Liquid summer cake, but without all the sugar.

Four Quarters (Winooski, VT) released a special-edition cask during the Vermont Brewers Festival weekend of their Gose conditioned on pineapple & jalapeños, calling it “Piña-Peño Gose.” Gose is known for being brewed with a touch of salt and some mild acidity, so when you add pineapple juice and a little spicy heat, it’s a no-brainer on a hot day. Gatorade’s got nothing on this!

Across the country, 21st Amendment Brewery (CA) adds massive amounts of fresh watermelon purée to an American Wheat Ale, calling it “Hell or High Watermelon.” The beauty of this beer lies in the refreshing but subtle character of watermelon. Just a hint of juiciness can be detected in this light-bodied, crushable ale. No need to add a slice of citrus to this wheat beer (please don’t, in fact – it’ll over-power the watermelon)!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one shandy. Harpoon’s (MA & VT) “UFO Big Squeeze” is chock full of tart grapefruit juice, making it an exceptionally refreshing beer when it’s seriously hot outside. The beer side of the concoction balances out some of the acidity of the grapefruit and helps lighten things up. Even in the sun when a can gets a bit warm, it still tastes great.

A version of this post ran in the Burlington Free Press on 7/24/15 under the title “Baker: Modern fruit beers are worth defending.”

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