Why do brewers use fruit?
Normally we’d kick-off with ‘what are hops?’ (or whatever it is you need to know everything about this month), but if we do that with fruit it’s going to end up like one of those soul-sapping pub conversations along the lines of “but is the tomato a fruit?” and we could probably all do without that. Let’s just agree that we’re talking about the fleshy, seed-bearing bits of plants that are commonly consumed as foodstuffs. Good.
To answer our alternative question, it’s pretty straightforward, really. Fruit is added to beer by brewers in some parts of the world to enhance the flavour. The country most closely associated with fruit beers is Belgium, where they are most commonly based them on the lambic style of beer. This is classically a base beer with unmalted wheat as well as malted barley in the cereal content, a high hop count and using spontaneous fermentation with wild yeast from the
brewery’s natural surrounding environment. Lambic beers are bottled and sold in their right, and sometimes young and old lambics are blended to make a style known as gueuze. The sweetness and flavour that can be provided by the addition of fruit acts as a counter to what can be rather challenging sourness and cheesiness of some lambic beer in its natural state, particularly when it is relatively young. That’s not to say that all fruit beers are sweet – far from it. The style can run from juicy sweetness to very dry, with the sweetness generally tending to diminish in proportion to the length of secondary fermentation or maturation.
Where does the fruit come in?
Traditionally, in classic Belgian beers, fruit is added to the cask after the fermentation process that produces the base lambic beer. The addition of fruit provides more sugars for the yeast to feed on, sparking a secondary fermentation.
As with all beer this produces new flavour characteristics within the beer, and increases the alcohol content. For this reason, many fruit beers can be deceptively strong, though unlike certain other spirit-based fruit drinks on the market, they retain an underlying beery character from the cereal and hop content that makes them very grown-up drinks.
For starters, the main fruits used in making beers – cherries and raspberries – were traditionally grown in abundance in that part of the world. The style was driven by the ingredients that were to hand rather than a determination to create beer with a particular flavour. But the tendency to use high wheat content in Belgium produces beers with some natural fruity flavours which are balanced and enhanced by the addition of more fruit.
The use of fruit is also common in Belgian wheat beers produced in the more modern way, by pitching bottom-fermenting yeast.
In the other major northern European brewing nations – Germany and the Czech Republic – production is governed by the Reinheitsgebot purity law, which permits the use of wheat but not fruit. Hence, Germany’s great wheat beers are fruit-free, though in some parts a splash of fruit juice is added at the point of service.
What fruit are used?
The most common style of lambic-based fruit beer is kriek – named after the Flemish word for cherry, although the French word griotte is sometimes preferred.
The more traditional method is to use whole cherries, sometimes left to dry on the tree in the way that grapes are to foster noble rot for fine dessert wines.
Unlike wine, where the grapes are crushed, the fruit is added whole, although the skins are broken to encourage contact between fermentable sugars and the yeast. There is a tendency these days to use imported fruit in purée or juice form, a practice which gets more conservative brewers, writers and checklist-style beer drinkers hot under the collar, because the riper and fresher the fruit, the more usable sugars there are for the yeast to go at.
Which tastes best: juice you get by pummelling oranges you’ve just bought from the market, or the stuff in the carton from the supermarket with the long-life sell-by date on it?
The second major fruit style in Belgium is raspberry, usually sold under the French name framboise, but sometimes as the Flemish frambozen, and beers made with blackcurrants (cassis) and peach (peche) are also common. The British brewer Melbourn Brothers – owned by Sam Smiths’s and based in Stamford, Lincs – makes cherry, strawberry and apricot beers using spontaneous fermentation, mainly for export to the United States.
Perhaps the best known example of a Belgian fruit-touched wheat beer made from conventional bottom-fermentation is Hoegaarden, arguably the best known brand on the United Kingdom market, and one which is laced with curaçao orange peel – and a touch of coriander.
Other Belgian brewers add lemon zest, strawberries and tropical fruits to their brews. Traditionally malty, bitter British ales are arguably less suited to the addition of sweeter fruit flavours than the already fruity wheat beer style, but there are isolated examples. Charles Wells adds chunks of fair trade bananas to make its Banana Bread ale, sold year round in bottles or seasonally on draught. The Norfolk micro Iceni tends more to the Belgian style for its draught Raspberry Wheat beer. Lemon and ginger is a combination which seems to work well for a British style beer and is favoured both by Norfolk’s Humpty Dumpty and St Peter’s of Suffolk, which also makes a superb grapefruit ale, though this is again with a wheat beer base.
Why do I keep getting asked “do you want fruit in it?”
As Hoegaarden has led the growth of draught white beers, the trend has been for halves or pints to be served with a wedge of lemon or lime in them. This can take the sight medicinal edge off some wheat beers, but, unsurprisingly, the brewers themselves do not recommend it, partly because it interferes with the flavour of the brew they’ve aimed to achieve, and partly because it destroys the head.
When Mexican beers, led by Sol but more latterly with Corona – began to be consumed in large quantities in the UK market at the end of the 1980s – the fake ‘tradition’ of wedging a chunk of lime in the bottle neck was born, though this is, with time, increasingly proving to be a diminishing fashion statement.
In Canada, beer is sometimes drunk with tomato juice in it. But is the tomato a fruit?