Near Brussels in Belgium, you'll find something truly special: beers fermented with the wild yeasts present in the air, then aged in oak barrels to impart a whole new set of intense flavors. These processes impart tart, leathery, funky flavors that brewers often balance with the natural sweetness of fresh fruit. Adding sour cherries to the barrels allows the yeast to slowly nibble away at the fruit, fermenting the sugars and converting them into sensational beer flavors in the final brew (called a kriek). You also may see lambics made with raspberries (framboise), peaches (pêche), and even black currants (cassis). In the best examples, the results are eye opening: tart and tangy, rustic and earthy, complex and subtle.
But making these beers with fresh fruit is expensive and time consuming, so many of the bigger brands take shortcuts, adding in syrups and extra sweeteners for results that are nowhere near as delicious as the more traditional examples. If you think of fruit beers as wimpy, these are probably the culprits.
When it comes to truly great fruit beers today, you have many more options than just the hallowed Belgian rarieties. (Though we love those, too.) American craft brewers are busy experimenting with incorporating fruit in their beers in new and creative ways. They're the first to say it's risky: Brewing has to be carefully timed to incorporate fruit before it spoils, and ripe fruit harbors all kinds of living organisms that can affect the brewing process and the flavor of the beer. Fruit, as we all know, isn't always in season, so getting it on a consistent basis for brewing is tricky.
The payoff, though, is worth it. There are fantastic fruit beers on the shelves these days, ranging from Belgian-style sours to IPAs to barleywines. Wondering where to start? Here are nine unique and delicious options to seek out.
Oud Beersel Oude Kriek (Beersel, Belgium)
This beer's deep magenta hue makes it look a little like sparkling concord grape juice, but you shouldn't expect a sugary sip. It's practically bone dry, hinting at cherry pits and panettone with fruity flavors that are more Champagne-like than juicy. There are tinges of acidity, but it translates to rustic and earthy as opposed to mouth-puckering. This is thirst-quenching stuff—you'll have to actively resist the urge to chug.
Pair it with: Duck. This beer's tartness cuts right through the fatty meat, while the fruit flavors enhance the bird like a well-made sauce.
Logsdon Farmhouse Ales Peche 'n Brett (Hood River, Oregon)
This isn't a beer that "tastes like peaches" in some metaphorical way. It embodies peaches: The Oregon-grown ones piled into this brew burst forth as soon as you open the bottle, with aromas that are remarkably electric and fresh. With every sip, each aspect of the peach is noticeable, from the skin down to the pit. Brettanomyces imparts just the right amount of earthy bite necessary to balance the fruity brew without becoming overly funky. It's not sour and it's not sugary; it's just brilliant.
Pair it with: Sweet Italian sausage. The beer accentuates the fresh herbal flavors in the sausage and offers the perfect sweet/salty balance.
Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin (San Diego, California)
If you've ever sprinkled brown sugar on your grapefruit and liked it, this is the beer for you. All the piney, bitter, hoppiness you'd expect from a West Coast IPA is here, but the addition of grapefruit softens it up a bit. Sweet flavors reminiscent of dried apricot and mango with tangy hits of grapefruit make for a beer that's likely to win over IPA newbies. It's fresh and hoppy yet soft and juicy, not too sweet and not too bitter.
Pair it with: Grilled shrimp. The beer plays off the sweetness of the shrimp while adding a pop of fresh fruit flavor. Think of it as a substitute for mango salsa.
Cascade Brewing Elderberry (Portland, Oregon)
This intensely herbal, tannic beer could be your new post-dinner digestif. It's aroma is packed with tart, dark berries plus a whiff of cane syrup. The flavor is part ripe blackberry, part birch cola, and part sweet vermouth. There are hints of sweetness in this medium-bodied brew, but earthiness and acidity definitely star. I'd put this unusual beer up against Averna or Fernet Branca any day.
Pair it with: Steamed dumplings. The herbal qualities of the beer work perfectly with the dumplings, similar to the way that black vinegar, soy, and sesame oil do.
Tröegs Mad Elf (Hershey, Pennsylvania)
Stick your nose in this one and you'll catch a blend of woodsy red cherry, cocoa powder, and cola—something like a Cherry Tootsie Pop. It has a rich figgy sweetness from the malt, luscious fruit flavors from puréed sweet and sour cherries from the Pacific Northwest, and spicy notes of cinnamon and clove, all in a package that's amazingly well balanced and surprisingly light in body.
Pair it with: Lamb chops. This beer's richness (not to mention the cherry and spice) add depth to the dish, a bit like a classic fruit sauce does.
Dogfish Head Black & Blue (Milton, Delaware)
If you drink a kir royale or you love a blackberry gin fizz, seek out this beer, which is made with blackberries and blueberries. It smells and tastes like overripe berries: sweet with just a hint of funk. Condensed black fruit and stewed rhubarb flavors are brightened up by a lively carbonation and just the right amount of astringency. This beer is great at cutting through creamy foods—plus, its pomegranate color just looks gorgeous on a brunch table.
Pair it with: Eggs Benedict. The carbonation and acidity works to relieve you from the heaviness of hollandaise sauce and the bright jammy flavors lighten up the entire dish.
Cisco Cranberry Lady of the Woods (Nantucket, Massachusetts)
Many fruit beers pull a balancing act of sweet and sour, but this Nantucket-made brew brings in a bitter component that's fairly unconventional. It starts off with succulent flavors of tangerine and papaya but a pungent tartness soon takes over. This beer is aged for 12 to 18 months in barrels filled with whole cranberries from local cranberry bogs, which imparts earthy cedar notes, a kick of funk (bacteria and wild yeast love barrels), and a shot of cranberry bitterness.
Pair it with: Tres leches cake. The puckering citrus notes will electrify the sweet and milky dessert, and the combo might remind you of a creamy Orange Julius.
Russian River Consecration (Santa Rosa, California)
This beer's lychee and fig jam scent may not prepare you for the complex levels of flavor to come. It's a dark ale aged four to eight months in Cabernet barrels with black currants (and a zoo of wild yeast and bacteria.) This leaves the beer with bright acidity and beautiful notes of prunes, kiwi, and pumpernickel toast, plus tannins extracted from barrels. Even though this is a big beer at 10% ABV, the dry walnut-like finish balances it wonderfully.
Pair it with: Cheese blintzes. Both the golden crepe and creamy filling will be amplified by the tangy and fruity beer.
Founders Blushing Monk (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Blushing Monk walks right up to the line of being too sweet and stops just short of it: It's the perfect last sip for the end of a meal. Whole raspberries are added at multiple stages during fermentation to impart deep berry compote flavors and a jammy texture. To get a brew this sweet without turning cloying is tough to pull off, but raspberry lovers everywhere will be glad to know it can be done.
Pair it with: Blackout cake. A dark chocolate cake without a lot of sweetness on its own will be jazzed up by this beer. Think of it as the fruit frosting.
Note: Oud Beersel, Dogfish Head, Russian River, and Founders provided as samples for review consideration.
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