Once upon a time, the craziest thing you’d see on the microbrewing scene was a fruit beer—typically, back then, a fruited wheat beer. We’ve come a long way since then—we’re in the smoothie-sour era now—and wheat beers with fruit now elicit little more than a casual shrug. In other words, they’re underappreciated, and just because a style isn’t on the cutting edge doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging and worthwhile to brew (not to mention fun to drink).
One brewery that definitely gets it right is Swamp Head with their mango-guava American wheat, Tropical Vibes. A summer seasonal for the brewery, it won a gold medal at the 2022 Great American Beer Festival. Here, Swamp Head director of operations Nick Dunn shares some insights into how to make a great one for today’s drinkers.
Notes from the Pro
Dunn says the goal here is to brew a fruit beer—not just a delivery vehicle for monochromatic fruit flavor.
“We are going for a clean, balanced American wheat,” he says. “We do add a late addition of Amarillo, as we think that pairs really well with mango and guava. However, we are mostly trying to not overpower the ingredients and let them do the talking—mild citrus from Amarillo, leading with mango and guava, but not so much that the base beer is undistinguishable.”
This isn’t meant to be an intense experience where you have a taste and move on to something else—they want you to drink more than one. It must be working because the beer has become a fan favorite in the Gainesville tasting room. “Balance is the key, which we think leads to drinkability,” Dunn says. “Especially in today's craft world, we find ourselves saying, ‘It's good, but I’d only want one.’ The goal was to make something, on a hot day on the water, to be able to comfortably enjoy.”
That doesn’t mean it lacks complexity. “Hopefully, with each sip you can get something that you didn’t in the previous one,” he says. Part of the goal “is making sure no one tells me, ‘I can’t taste the [fruit].’”
Dunn says they aim to keep the fruit additions aseptic, and that they try to time them while the yeast are still active in suspension, before the beer reaches terminal gravity, “so we don’t have to add another pitch, and to make sure it’s consistent from batch to batch. We do a lot of fruit beers, and timing the secondary appropriately always seems to produce better results than waiting and adding a second pitch.”
Another key to consistency is making sure that the fruit they source is reliable and high-quality. “With the fruit itself, there is a lot of variation, similar to hop lots,” Dunn says. “We try out a lot of suppliers to find one we like and make sure there isn’t a lot of variation in the product.”
Translation and Application
There’s often surprisingly little daylight between the practices of a commercial brewery and a home brewery—but those gaps widen when it comes to fruit. As Dunn says, “a homebrewer clearly wouldn’t be moving 2,000 pounds of fruit.” That puts complications around pumping and siphoning on another order of magnitude.
However, there are definitely areas where Swamp Head’s approach can inform anyone on a smaller scale. First, focus on “fruit processing and pitching method, making sure to be as clean as possible,” Dunn says. This is relatively easy if you’re using aseptic puree, but if you’re using fresh, chopped fruit you can steep it in 160°F (71°C) water for a minute or two to pasteurize it.
“We used to puree our fruit in-house,” Dunn says, “and I think that is the best result, using either a standard blender or immersion blender. If that is not an option, the finer chopped [fruit] also has decent results, but certainly has a different expression.” He adds that they never use fruit extracts or distillates, a policy I can endorse without reservation. (It’s not that I’ve never had a good beer with fruit extracts, but it takes a lot of nuance, work, and sometimes just time to pull it off.)
Six years ago, I planted some fruit trees in my own yard, and let me tell you: It might only be psychological, but the apples, peaches, and pears I get from those trees—after paying my dues to the neighborhood deer and crows—make some of the best products I’ve ever baked, cooked, or brewed.
There’s a reason why fruited American wheat beers were such a successful way to convert folks to craft beer in the early days: They’re easy to drink, flavorful, and the grist provides a fantastic backdrop for a host of hops and fruit flavors. In this case, mango and guava make a wonderful pairing with Amarillo. It’s easy to imagine a Tropical Vibes–inspired beer becoming a popular hit in your seasonal rotation.