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Slicing to the core of fruit beers

Are any worth more than the sum of their parts?
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Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

American store shelves are sagging beneath the weight of fruit beers. Pineapple, grapefruit, tangerine, peach, apple, lemon, plus the usual cherries and berries. With these brews so ubiquitous, it’s worth asking: How did we get here? And how many of these are any damned good?

I mean, having so much variety can be a hoot; we all know that. And what simpler way to fluff up the variety than by adding a cornucopia of fruity words, colors and pictures to those shiny cans and bottles, each competing for our attention in an increasingly crowded aisle?

But let’s ask ourselves: How often do we drink one of these fruit beers and decide, “Yes, I’d like another. And another. And, what the hell, maybe another?” Yes, they’re fun to look at. Many are also fun to taste—that fact alone means we are well past the bad old days. But are they fun to drink?

To find the answer, I went against my better instincts and bought a bunch of them. For science, you understand.

Note that I do my reviews a bit differently than the kind that appear, for example, in the pages of DRAFT. Our editors receive fresh samples shipped by breweries for review, tasted blindly under fair and ideal conditions. But I find my beers—like you—in the wild. And, like you, I pay for them myself. (How else to decide if they’re worth it?) I scribble notes and snap photos, but otherwise they are consumed within the context of my life. They are subjective and hedonistic but, I hope, useful.

Also, most of these are from Missouri, because that’s where I am at the moment. Beer-wise, this is a middle-of-the-road state, if there is such a thing. The beers below don’t represent a national cross section, but they are an example of the selection you’re likely to find in your own bottle shops: a mix of national, regional and local. They’re listed alphabetically, of course.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

4 Hands Preserved Lemon Gosé: First of all, “gosé?” Is that go-ZAY? I’ll resist the urge to edit the accent. Pours thickly hazy pale yellow-gold. Smells like briney lemon juice, which fits, but being able to smell the sea is a hint that it might be oversalted. And indeed, this is a salty beer, saltier than classic Leipziger examples and overshadowing the lemony acidity. Too salty to be quenching, for me, but that lemon on the can is very pretty. Reminds me of a nice herbal chicken marinade, and it might be great for that. The can recommends only one food pairing: ramen, which would have delighted my college student self if I could have afforded this beer back then. For a fruited 4 Hands that might be more than the sum of its parts, check out Passion Fruit Prussia, with bright fruit intermingling with tart, nutty wheat base; I drank it from a can in a coozy on a boat cruising down Table Rock Lake. Unlike with this go-zay, I immediately wished I’d bought more.

Ballast Point Pineapple Sculpin: When I was last in Missouri two years ago, I didn’t see Ballast Point beers at all. Now, after its purchase by Constellation, they appear to be crowding fridges and floor displays with a growing range of variously fruited IPAs. But who cares as long as they’re good, right? As soon as I crack the bottle a whiff of canned fruit cocktail syrup grazes my nostrils. This one pours a thickly hazy dull orange color, but with lush, lasting foam, into a plastic hula-girl cocktail cup. That fruit-syrup aroma gradually fades, but there remains an underlying pineapple-juice sweetness throughout. Otherwise, this is Sculpin—arguably an archetype of a dryish, bitterish IPA that was already fruity anyway. Which raises the obvious question: Why add fruit to something that was already impressively fruity when it lacked fruit? The obvious answer: Because they can, and because we seem to buy it. (Incidentally, I also drank a few original recipe Sculpin, which was far less juicy than I remember. But still pretty good.)

Boulevard Tropical Pale Ale: I drank this with breakfast at something called a Breakfast Pub—an innovation that we surely deserve to enjoy in greater numbers. The beer poured a clear reddish amber from a cold keg into a shaker “pint” glass—America! This one is an evolution of a previous collaboration (No. 5, if you’re keeping score at home) with Florida’s Cigar City Brewing. This was a lovely, crisp, drinkable pale ale … but I found the grapefruit and passion fruit somewhat muddled with crackery malt and no fruitier, really, than some pale ales and IPAs that maximize late hopping (sans produce). In no sense would I refuse this beer if brought by a friend, but frankly I’d rather keep drinking Boulevard (original flavor) Pale Ale, which when fresh is one of America’s great undersung classics. Again it raises the question, why add fruit? (And again the answer: because they can and we buy it.)

Mother’s Blush: Mother’s is Springfield’s local package brewery, grown by design into something regional. Its taps are a welcome sight in many local restaurants that might otherwise be topping out at Blue Moon or Shock Top. The brewery’s Backyard Beers series are all brews spiked with produce (like the Cucumber Saison) and sold in 16-ounce cans. This beer is not part of that series; it’s a summer seasonal, but I’m not sure the names of all these seasonal series really matter to anyone besides the folks who dream them up. Blush is a purple-packaged witbier with pomegranate and hibiscus—absurdly, I imagine a cigar-puffing tycoon saying, “We need to make one for the ladies!”—and my inner sexist clod is slightly embarrassed to show it to the clerk at the supermarket. Here on the back porch, I expect it to pour a brash pink, given its ingredients, but instead it’s more like a golden amber with subtle rosy tint. Its nose is sweet-tart candy and flowers; its flavor starting sweet and rolling into slightly tart. Not my thing. Smells and tastes like a concept. I’m also not sure where the pomegranate comes in. I hear great things about the same brewery’s Grapefruit Wheat but just missed its season. Or month. Or whatever.

New Belgium Citradelic Tangerine IPA: Another beautiful can (or bottle label, if you prefer). It may help to embrace a single fruit and go all the way with it—in this case, I think the sweeter orange character helped tropical hops to do what we have always sort of wanted them to do—sweet and tangy juice interplaying with a fair smack of bitterness. A juicy banger, an IPA for the juice box generation.

O’Fallon Wheach: A control, or sorts, as this is an old-school fruit beer—basically a wheat beer spiked with fruit juice. It is exactly as I remember: peach cocktail syrup and nutty wheat, lacking in acidity. Too sweet to be quenching, but it’s all right I guess.

Schlafly Grapefruit IPA: Honestly, this was my unexpected favorite of the bunch. Like the Citradelic, it embraces one fruit and goes as far as it can with it. It keeps a light, quenching acidity, which allows the grapefruit to taste like grapefruit, and is dry enough to allow the fruit to shine, with a restrained bitterness that doesn’t coat the palate. It’s nearly radler-ish. At 5% strength it would not be overly dangerous to tear through a sixer, which might or might not be something that I actually did.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

The tasting notes portion of our session is over. What follows are free bonus thoughts after a week of buying too many and thinking too much about fruit beers:

  • It’s possible that some small percentage of these came into the existence via the creative inspiration of individual brewers:“Hey, I’ve got an idea!” Here is the more likely scenario: There are regular meetings with clever marketing and sales folks, who mention that everybody is doing a fruit beer these days, and hey, they need to do a fruit beer too. “If you make it, I can sell it!” If the word “craft” still means anything to you these days, it’s worth asking whether that approach fits your own personal definition.
  • Looking at all these fruit beers crowding the shelves, I have to wonder: What happened to all the other beers? I heard so much about the supposed lager renaissance, but I don’t see many of those at the moment.
  • I mentioned the “bad old days” of fruit beers—think of cherry wheats and berry blondes. You know the ones. So you know my bias. For years I avoided these things, because for years they weren’t worth buying. Only rarely did they avoid the annoying clash of beer and fruit to become something worth drinking repeatedly. Usually there was malt or hop stomping on fruit character, which often tasted artificial anyway. And often they were sweet and lacking in quenching acidity.
  • So here is what appears to have happened: Brewers developed styles that are better able to carry the fruit. Pale ales and IPAs became absurdly fruity, so what the hell? Might as well add some fruit. Sour beers gained popularity—mixing those with fruit wasn’t a problem (see: lambic), but selling them was. The fruited wheats are still around but my impression is that the newer ones are embracing just enough acidity to quench.
  • Our IPAs had to get lighter and drier for this to really work, for no malt to step on the fruit. Bitterness receded because we gradually learned that hop aroma and flavor were what we wanted, and if that hop flavor was juicy and fruity and obvious, well, so much the better.
  • It became an art to accentuate fruity hop flavor and aroma, but now they are just dumping fruit in there. If this is OK, will our brewers lose sight of the art? That first time someone noticed that Cascade was fruity and liked it that way, did clever American hopping sow the seeds of its own destruction?
  • Many thanks to my better half for this point: Do we see this in the wine world? “Oh, it has blackberry notes and people seem to like that so … LET’S JUST ADD BLACKBERRY JUICE.” No. It would be crude. But in beer we’re cool with crude—as long as it tastes good, the price is right and the pretty label catches our attention amid all the other noise.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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