Fruit Beer

2015-01-27

Fruit beer is a style that takes on a lot of different meanings. It also gets a pretty rough reputation from beer-to-beer and person-to-person. I’ve run into people who claim they do not like fruit beer as they are finishing pint after pint of an IPA with an apricot addition or something similar. It is another style that many people just do not fully understand.

Do we need to start by defining what goes into a fruit beer? The BJCP makes one thing pretty clear on just a quick glance at the 2008 guidelines:

THE ENTRANT MUST SPECIFY THE UNDERLYING BEER STYLE AS WELL AS THE TYPE OF FRUIT(S) USED. IF THIS BEER IS BASED ON A CLASSIC STYLE (E.G., BLONDE ALE) THEN THE SPECIFIC STYLE MUST BE SPECIFIED. CLASSIC STYLES DO NOT HAVE TO BE CITED (E.G., “PORTER” OR “WHEAT ALE” IS ACCEPTABLE). THE TYPE OF FRUIT(S) MUST ALWAYS BE SPECIFIED. (BJCP Guidelines, 2008)

To truly get a grasp on this “style,” you must really have a base understanding of all the other styles. You must understand the nuances of the listed style and see how the fruit addition either complements or contrasts the base beer. What is important to judging and brewing a fruit beer is first taking the base beer into consideration. You cannot have a good fruit beer with a bad base. One thing that should be considered with any fruit additions to a style of beer is that some combinations may work really well, while others do not make very good beer at all.

While in the 2008 BJCP guidelines, Fruit Beer was a catchall for any beer brewed with fruit that wasn’t already classically defined, the 2014 Draft Guidelines break Fruit Beer into three subcategories. Fruit Beer, Fruit and Spice Beer, and Specialty Fruit Beer essentially account for any variation of fruit additions that can be made.

Let’s take a look at each of the new subcategories and see what fits into them:

The Fruit Beer category is for beer made with any fruit or combination of fruit under the definitions of this category. The culinary, not botanical, definition of fruit is used here – fleshy, seed-associated structures of plants that are sweet or sour, and edible in the raw state. Examples include pomme fruit (apple, pear, quince), stone fruit (cherry, plum, peach, apricot, mango, etc.), berries (any fruit with the word ‘berry’ in it, currants), citrus fruit, dried fruit (dates, prunes, raisins, etc.), tropical fruit (banana, pineapple, guava, papaya, etc.), figs, pomegranate, prickly pear, etc. It does not mean spices, herbs, vegetables, nuts (anything with ‘nut’ in the name, including coconut), coffee, chocolate, ginger, roses, rhubarb, or botanical fruit (squash, chiles, beets, etc.) that are treated as culinary vegetables (see the definition of spices, herbs, and vegetables in Category 30 for detail). Basically, if you have to justify a fruit using the word ‘technically’ as part of the description, then that’s not what we mean. (BJCP Guidelines, 2014)

In subcategory 29A (Fruit Beer), what is really important to a fruit beer is overall balance. That is not to say you cannot have a big fruit flavor in your favorite style of beer. What it means is that the fruit should not overwhelm the character of the original beer you are trying to brew (though you need to take into consideration that certain elements of a beer will take a different form with the addition of fruit.) Your bitterness may seem different, your malt character might be a touch muted or accentuated, your hops and yeast can also become a different animal. Judging this style can be tricky based on these facts. You have to understand how the fruit addition will play in the finished product. The biggest thing that you want to avoid is the addition of fruit to where its character becomes artificial.

In 29B (Fruit and Spice Beer), we have the same characteristics of a fruit beer; the colors in lighter beers can mimic the fruit to a degree. The fruit is evident in the aroma—though the intensity of said aroma can vary or be nondescript—as well as the fruit flavor in the beer. But we also get an addition of spice to accentuate the fruit and base beer style. This can lead to a number of harmonious marriages that awaken a new sense of lust on the palate. This subcategory also shares a bit of space with 30A, SHV Beer, so take into consideration how you would differentiate a beer placed here, vs 29A or 30A.

Subcategory 29C gets a little complex. What is a Specialty Fruit Beer? Isn’t a fruit beer a specialty all in its own? Well, if your fruit beer has an additional process or ingredient added, such as the addition of honey or brown sugar, this is where your beer belongs. Though, if you cannot pull out what makes your beer fit into this category, despite what your recipe says, throw it into 29A for best results. Your addition of invert sugar may sound good on paper, but if it fails to come through in the final product, an otherwise good beer may be discounted for not living up to expectations.

Fruit can really bring out some interesting characteristics in beer. It can brighten up dull flavors and bring a new layer of complexity to already great beers. Adding fruit can prove difficult at times, and some fruits work better than others. Some fruits work well in one style but not so well in another. There is a wide range of enjoyment that can come from doing something so basic as combining a few of your favorite things, but going over all of that is better suited for another time.

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The Session: The Preferred Book of Choice

The Session

A brewing book I would like to see would be one about session beers. Our love affair with high ABV beers has long been established, and only in recent years have we seen the craft beer community putting more focus on beers that won’t knock you to the floor if you have a few in one sitting. I’d like to see a book with a few different sections, including: the history of commercial session beer, special aspects of brewing a good session beer, and how-to tips for home brewers looking to brew their own.

We’ve seen quite a rise in popularity recently in session beers, especially session IPAs.  But session beers were around long before that, even if they weren’t called that. The English ordinary bitter is a perfect example of a historical session beer. No doubt the saison brewed for farm workers in Belgium would have been of the session variety. Germany certainly had its share of session type beers. In fact, at one time, people had to drink beer instead of water, and certainly they wouldn’t have wanted to be drinking beer with a high ABV. I think the history of low ABV beer could be quite interesting.

There are certainly special aspects that go into brewing a commercial session beer. Breweries don’t want to brew a watered-down version of their standard AVB beers and call it their session. They want a lower ABV beer that has huge aroma and flavor. To achieve this, I’m sure they’ve got methods they’re using. This is especially true for the session IPA. In order to achieve a lower ABV, one has to have less fermentable sugar in the starting wort, which usually means using less grain. Hops not being affected by fermentation may seem to not play a part, but balance is so important, even in an IPA. Hop a 4% beer like an 8% beer and you may find you’re drinking hop tea. Learning what’s going on at some of the bigger breweries making session IPAs would make a great read.

Being a lover of commercial craft beer often leads you down the path to brew your own. There are many books on home brewing in the market, but none that focus solely on low ABV styles. Showcasing these styles, and educating home brewers on how to brew a high flavored beer without a high ABV punch would be useful. Home brewers would benefit from reading about how the pros brew their session beers, and these lessons could be discussed on a 5 gallon level.

A session beer book would be a great read. I would love to see one of these hit the market in the coming year. I love drinking lower ABV beer, and I know others do as well. A tome on the history of lower ABV styles, how pro brewers brew their beer, and how the home brewer might apply these to their own brew pot could find a home in many beer lovers’ libraries.

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