India Pale Ales may still reign as the fastest-growing category of American beer, but in looking at the second largest category—seasonal releases—it’s clear that fruit flavors move forward in spring and summer.
Brewing with fruit is a test of both the brewer’s skill and budget. Less-expensive brews are often made with extracts, artificial flavors and sugar-based syrups. More costly ingredients are whole fruits, concentrates, juices, or fresh or frozen fruit purees. Some brews feature a bit of both, such as a beer brewed with fruit puree and accented with extract at the time of packaging for a bigger aroma upon decanting into a glass.
Yet AB/InBev’s Bud Light Lime and Tenth and Blake’s Leinenkugel Orange Shandy offer consumers very different drinking experiences than do craft specialties such as the Founders Brewing Co. Cerise or Cigar City Brewing Co.’s Right Side Up Pineapple Cake Lager. Other fruit-forward brews include hybrid ales that undergo secondary fermentation with whole fresh fruit, such as Supplication from Russian River Brewing Co., aged in pinot noir barrels and fermented with sour cherries and wild yeast.
At the Quaker Steak & Lube, customers who enjoy the domestic fruit lagers are “typically female, who like the bright flavors of the shandies, especially the Leinenkugel Summer Shandy,” says Kate Malaniak, the chain’s senior director of beverage management. “We just did a feature on MillerCoors Redd’s Apple Ale and we also got a great response from all demographic groups.”
Suggested pairings include a Leinenkugel Lemon or Orange Shandy with the Biker Chick Salad or Boneless Chicken Wrap, Malaniak says. Quaker Steak & Lube has 65 units, with an average bar size of 35 patrons and dining for 275 to 325 patrons, with some units offering more seasonal capacity via patios. Prices for the fruit beers are based on serving size, with pints ranging from $3 to $4, 22-oz. draft pours at $4.25 to $4.50, and 12-oz. bottles from $3.25 to $4.50.
Bold fruit flavors tend to boost beer’s profile with customers new to craft beer, says Rick Norry, co-owner of the Kilted Mermaid in Vero Beach, FL. “We find that some of the sweet fruit beers, such as Lindemans kriek, are really popular with people who mostly drink wine, and don’t enjoy bitter hop flavors.”
The Kilted Mermaid, a Celtic-influenced craft beer bar, opened in 2011 and draws a multi-generational crowd. The décor is low key and comfortable, with bar fixtures built from recycled material, such as tabletops covered in beer bottle crowns.
The regular customers contribute to the festive atmosphere with collectibles in mermaid themes, hung from a large oak tree branch suspended from the ceiling. Seating in the 3,500-sq-ft. restaurant holds 60 people, plus a dozen seats at the bar. Another 40 seats are available in a seasonal patio under a large pergola built by Norry.
The Kilted Mermaid prices most beers at $4 to $5 per bottle, and imports such as the Lindemans average $9.50. “We don’t offer large-format bottles,” says Norry. “We concentrate more on the 12-oz. to 16-oz. servings, although high-gravity beers are served in 10-oz. tulip glasses or snifters.”
James Pachorek, proprietor of the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Café in Denver, finds a welcoming niche for several fruit-forward brews. “A really sweet lambic has its role as dessert pairing,” says Pachorek, citing the match of a hazelnut-chocolate glazed waffle with a rich cherry kriek. “The extreme fruit flavors do appeal to people who are beginning to explore craft beer or seeking a new experience,” he adds.
The Cheeky Monk has three locations: Denver LoDo (downtown), Westminster and Winter Park, CO, with average size of 4,000 sq. ft. and 12 to 14 seats at the bar. About 50% of food and beverage sales come from beer, both domestic and imports. Around a third of the beer inventory is served on draft (50 tap lines), with 150 beers by the bottle.
Some fruit-juice blended brews even bring on cravings for pairings with foods associated with the primary fruit, according to Pachorek. For example, he recalled the first time he drank a Stiegl Radler: “The burst of grapefruit flavors had me craving a Denver omelette.”
Cutting back the sweetness
In the seven years since the Cheeky Monk opened, Pachorek has seen a greater demand for fruit beers of some “subtlety and mystery,” in which the flavor of the fruit becomes part of a more complex taste. “Our bartenders hear from more knowledgeable customers, who demand a more sophisticated profile, not just a one-dimensional fruit flavor saturated with sugar,” he says.
American breweries such as Rogue Ales and Marin Brewing Co. have long offered fruit-flavored specialty brews in styles such as pale ales and wheat ales. Yet more American craft brewers turn to the Belgian lambic style for inspiration in brewing with fruit and wild yeasts for a tart or even sour flavor profile. Pachorek cites Allagash Brewing Co. (Portland, ME), Lost Abbey Brewing (San Marcos, CA), and Russian River Brewing Co. (Santa Rosa, CA) as American leaders in brewing wild ales with fruit.
At Philadelphia’s Alla Spina (Italian for “from the tap”), imported fruit beers from Italy are popular. “We are a modern Italian gastropub featuring both local brews and Italian beers, as well as casual food including house-made sausages, braised meats and oysters,” says beverage director Steve Wildy of parent company Vetri Family Group.
Alla Spina is a haven for seasonal craft beers, many brewed with fruit. Guests can grab a spot at the 25-ft.-long bar and order from one of the 20 taps on the custom copper draft towers. These include Italian brews such Birra del Borgo, Baladin, Birreria Amiata, Birrificio del Ducato, as well a house beer brewed by local Victory Brewing Co. of Downington, PA.
“We developed a collaboration beer with Victory by sitting down with their brewer and tasting the entire food menu and found the ideal style for our house beer, Victory Novello,” Wildy says. “It’s a spicy Belgian blond ale—really compatible with our beer cheese and house-baked pretzels.”
The Novello price is $5 for a 12 oz. glass, using a classic stemmed glass with a flared bowl. Other American craft brands such as Stoudt’s, Weyerbacher, and Dogfish Head Brewery, are also featured on draft, priced from $5 to $8.
“There’s been a transition among the more-serious beer drinkers, from seeking fruit beers that are sweet to now choosing more complex and sophisticated flavors,” Wildy says. “There’s a better balance between tangy, even sour fruit, and fermentation flavors from the yeast. The fruit becomes a layer of flavor in the middle of a more complex, earthier beer.”
Fruit beer pairings
Beer constitutes about 20% of overall sales at Alla Spina’s 4,000-sq.-ft. restaurant and bar. “Italian beer is very food friendly and overall, more complementary and less challenging to pair with food than is wine. There is less acidity and no tannins to contend with in a pairing with beer,” says Wildy. “A beer brewed with fruit has a bit more acidity, but still tastes in balance with the malts, and often adding more texture and mouthfeel.”
As an example, Wildy cites Birrificio Italiano’s Cassissona, brewed with cassis syrup, but not hugely sweet on the palate. “It’s a balanced ale, and doesn’t taste like black currant soda.” Cassissona pairs well with roasted duck breast and poultry, and the fruit can even out the vinegary taste of balsamic-glazed vegetables and salad.
Pachorek of the Cheeky Monk notes that many new specialty hop cultivars also can amplify fruit flavors, such as papaya, mango, pineapple and passion fruit, in addition to the traditional range of citrus flavors associated with fresh hops. “Fruit ales add more depth to many food pairings,” says Pachorek.
He cites the Lindemans cassis brewed with black currant, paired with penne pasta, mushrooms and asparagus tossed in a bacon gorgonzola cream sauce. “The combination is magical.”
Jake Karley is the director of beverages at the P.J.W. Restaurant Group, owners of the Pour House and P.J. Whelihan’s concepts with locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Our number-one bestseller at both Pour House locations is the Unibroue Éphémère Pomme apple ale,” he notes.
The beer, priced at $5.50 for a 12-oz. tulip glass, “does phenomenally well for us, year round,” Karley says. “It’s our most accessible craft beer and an easy step up for drinkers of domestic lagers.” Plus, he points out that the apple ale is more of a session beer, at about 5.5% ABV.
“We also do a great business with the Harpoon ales at P.J.’s,” says Karley. The bars will serve Harpoon’s new blended grapefruit juice-wheat ale shandy called UFO Big Squeeze when it launches this spring. Blended beers are another emerging trend; look for coverage in the July/August issue of Cheers.