Fruit Beers

This article appeared in the Syracuse New Times, August 20-27, 1997.

* * *

Imagine for a moment that Adam had shown some backbone. That when Eve advanced and held out the apple, Adam said, “Thank you, but no.” Might not Eve have huddled once more with the serpent and returned saying, “Adam, how about an apple beer?”

Surely Adam would have succumbed. But, as it turned out, the forbidden fruit alone was sufficient for the task. Rather, it remained for later human ingenuity to discover that fruit, all kinds of fruit, had a place in beer. Long before the introduction of hops into brewing, brewers experimented with herbs and spices, bark and berries, looking for ways to balance the sweetness of malt.

Appropriately it is Belgian lambic, the oldest surviving beer style, that has the strongest tradition of using fruit: cherries in the version of lambic known as kriek, and raspberries in framboise. To create them, the beer is first fermented in the lambic style — spontaneously by strains of yeast and bacteria present in the air only in a small area around Brussels. Then the beer is aged in casks with whole fruit, either cherries or raspberries. For three to six months the beer gradually picks up the fruit flavors and aroma, right down to a pleasant almond note from the cherry pits. The fruit beer is then bottled with a dash of fresh lambic to prompt a second fermentation in the bottle, just like champagne, and aged for another three to five months.

The result is dry and complex, with the sour astringency of a plain lambic balanced by the flavor and aroma of the fruit. Every brewery has its own way of doing things — Cantillon includes cherries and vanilla in its famous framboise — and lambic fruit beers are highly respected and highly priced, a drink for connoisseurs. More recent, and less hallowed, versions of lambic fruit beers have been made with peaches, black currants, muscat grapes, plums, and even bananas.

Today in the U.S., thanks to the lambic tradition and the experimentation of homebrewers and brewpubs, fruit beers are booming. Surveying the scene, Daniel Bradford, publisher of All About Beer magazine and founder of the Great American Beer Festival, notes, “Fruit beers range from serious beers to Snapple beers, and they all have their place.”

At the serious end of the spectrum, Bradford cites New Glarus Brewing’s Belgian Red Wisconsin Cherry Beer, a winner of multiple gold and platinum medals in national and international competitions. Lavish amounts of fresh Montmorency cherries and aging in oak wine barrels contribute to the beer’s striking flavor. Chicago’s Beverage Tasting Institute gives it a 98 out of a possible 100 and describes it as follows: “Extraordinarily complex cherry cake aromas translate well into a tart, fruity, flavorsome palate with a complex finish and lingering, pleasantly oxidized notes. An outrageous interpretation of the classic Belgian style.”

Here in Central New York, we have a generous selection from across the spectrum. At Empire Brewing (120 Walton Street) in Armory Square, head brewer Steve Schmidt brews a year-round bounty of fruit beers. Small batches and a young, open-minded public give a brewpub brewer a tremendous amount of freedom, and so Schmidt has been able to create and brew a terrific assortment of beers, learning along the way. Each fruit calls for a different approach in brewing, and Schmidt recently shared his expertise for California-based BrewPub magazine in an article entitled “A Tactical Guide to Flavorful Fruit Beers.”

Cherry Ale is Schmidt’s favorite, but Raspberry Wheat is the biggest crowd pleaser. The best name belongs to Peach Buzz. In mid-summer, a dry and delicious Wild Strawberry gives way to Purple Haze, a blueberry ale. Apple lovers especially look forward to October when the Empire staff visits The Grove orchard in Mexico, New York, to pick Macintosh apples at the peak of perfection and send them through the cider press. Back in the brewhouse, the fresh juice goes into the beer during fermentation with a few added pie spices and bingo, you have Clarence’s Bootleg Apple Ale, an annual Empire favorite.

At Middle Ages Brewing (120 Wilkinson Street), brewster Mary Rubenstein has recently designed an Apricot Ale. “Too many fruit beers are like beer coolers,” Mary notes. “I wanted something more subtle, so we used apricots and created a lighter beer that balanced the fruit and malt flavors nicely.” This is the only Middle Ages beer to use wheat malt, and it also includes a touch of darker malt to give the finished brew a rich apricot hue. The Apricot Ale is available in half-gallon growlers at the brewery or on tap at the Blue Tusk in Armory Square.

In addition to Middle Age’s Apricot, The Blue Tusk (165 Walton Street) also offers Pyramid Apricot Ale (’94 Gold Medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival); Sam Adams Cherry Wheat and Summer Ale (with lemon); Pete’s Wicked Summer Ale (with lemon); Brewery Hill Raspberry Red Ale; Boon Kriek, a Belgian lambic made with cherries; and Lindemans Framboise, a Belgian lambic with raspberries. The draft Lindemans is a real find in these parts, complex enough to delight the purists while delicious enough to beguile the uninitiated. Also, regulars at the Tusk are anxiously awaiting the return of Celis White, which is made with Curacao orange peel, and Celis Raspberry, which is the White with a framboise-like infusion of raspberries.

There are those of the malt faithful who find any foreign addition to a beer to be a needless gilding of the lily, a blasphemy, a heretical act. On the other hand, when the spirit of epicurial adventure burns within us, who are we to deny it?

In England, the publicans add the fruit. Shandy is ale mixed with lemonade, and Lager & Lime is a light lager with a splash of Rose’s lime juice. A twist on the latter is Lager & Black Currant, a vile purple in color and taste, but everyone looks at whoever orders it which saves time in the mating process. England also offers Snakebite, a mix of beer and apple cider, including a special version: Guinness stout and Woodpecker cider, known to those with the courage to ask for it aloud as a Black Pecker.

In Germany, the Reinheitsgebot, or ‘purity law,’ prevents brewers from using fruit in their beers, but drinkers are happy to add a dash of raspberry syrup to the pale, acidic and refreshing Berliner Weisse beers. The sparkling pink result may be the earliest recorded ‘fruit beer’ experience in Syracuse, as the drink was popular at the original Danzer’s Restaurant on Park Street 30 years ago.

And finally, everyone has their own favorite beer cooler that they prepare when the lawn has just been mowed and no one else is watching. This writer’s choice is 12 oz. of Saranac Gold (an impeccably made and largely under-appreciated pilsner) and 3 oz. of pink lemonade in a large glass with a quartet of ice cubes. The dry hoppiness and tart lemon flavors marry beautifully, and the ice cubes do not dilute the bright rosy mixture because it vanishes before they can begin to melt.

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