Sipping a beer that tastes overwhelmingly of peaches, freshly cracked pepper, cloves, or cinnamon, it’s easy to imagine the bottle was brewed using a combination of fruits and spices. But while some brews really are flavored with whole or puréed fruits, the category of beers Adam Dulye and I refer to as "fruity and spicy" in our book, The Beer Pantry, largely pick up their aroma and flavor from the yeasts they're brewed with.
There are hundreds of yeast strains that play a role in the world of fermentation, but it’s the saccharomyces cerevisiae species which are responsible for the spicy, fruity notes you’ll pick up in beer. When exposed to oxygen, these yeasts develop esters—organic compounds that take on fruity flavors during fermentation. The esters lend these beers mellow notes of citrus and stone fruit, and sometimes add other unusual and exciting flavors, ranging from hints of sweet tropical fruits to woody, smoky barnyard hay, and even bubblegum.
With such big personalities, fruity and spicy beers can stand up to all sorts of underlying acidity—buttermilk, vinegar, grapefruit, and grapes, to name a few. It’s a category that boasts a diverse range of brews, including refreshing farmhouse-style saisons, easy-drinking and aromatic Belgian blonde ales, soft and faintly sweet wits (white beers, such as Hefeweizen, which incorporate at least 50% unmalted wheat), more alcoholic and maltier Tripels and Quadrupels, and herbal gruits brewed without hops.
Sipped alongside a meal, these beers can take the place of fruity and spicy ingredients added directly to dishes. Along with bringing acidity, their notes of pepper and tropical fruit help enliven subtle dishes like carrot soup, roasted rutabaga, and mussels.
Lately I’ve been enjoying Trappist ales, which are most famously brewed by, or under the supervision of, monks in over a dozen monasteries throughout Europe. These beers showcase notes of fruit and warm spices. Tripels (one of the most famous of which is the world-renowned, high-alcohol Westmalle Tripel) traditionally contain three times the malt and three times the alcohol of a regular Belgian blonde, the typical low-malt light ale of Belgium. Luckily, Tripels’ higher-than-average alcohol content doesn’t overwhelm noticeable hints of cinnamon, brown sugar, and dried fruit. These powerfully flavored beers pair wonderfully with lightly cooked mollusks like seared scallops in a faintly sweet sauce, or delicate white fish like sea bass with preserved lemon.
In saisons, meanwhile, you might pick up banana with a hint of clove. These bubbly, fruity brews are bottle-conditioned, meaning yeast is allowed to naturally carbonate the beer after fermentation is complete, adding another dimension of flavor. I love the way a saison, enjoyed after dinner, coaxes out the slightly bitter, grassy quality of a rich olive oil cake.
Also in the fruity and spicy category are hopless gruit ales. In the Middle Ages, before hops became the conventional, go-to bittering agent, beer was made with gruits—combinations of bitter herbs like yarrow or horehound. Nowadays, there’s a whole slew of more culinary-minded hop-less ales whose gruits are made with aromatics like oregano and peppery horseradish. Gruit ales pair well with all sorts of wintery roast meats and woody herbs—think rosemary-rubbed quail, or thyme-crusted venison. Since modern gruit ales are flavored with such a wide variety of herbs, it’s worth checking the label on the bottle before you decide what to pair your beer with. No two gruit ales are quite the same.
Because fruity and spicy beers offer up so much flavor, they can easily become fallback ingredients in cooking, as they do in traditional Belgian beer-steamed mussels, in which the beer imparts an earthy flavor. But while these beers are great for cooking, they should be treated as more than a backdrop for simmering and stewing.
Next time you’re cooking with a really good fruity and spicy beer, take a sip (or swig) before you start. If you taste peppery and warm spices in the beer, think about how those flavors can compliment the dish. While I love using beer as an active ingredient, it’s just as great, if not better, when simply sipped on the side.