Four years ago, I planted some fruit trees in my backyard: two apple, two pear, and one peach. As an avid homebrewer, my motivation went beyond obscuring the neighbors’ kids’ palatial play set. I wanted fruit for my beers, ciders, perries, and maybe even some peach mead.
So, in early September this year, we finally had our first real harvest from the trees. Until now, they’d only given us the occasional fruit salsa or salad ingredient. Suddenly, they had blessed us with 200 pears. I eagerly pulped and pressed them, running off the juice into my six-gallon carboy … and they produced barely a gallon of juice.
The moral of this story—which I should have internalized from years of brewing with and fermenting fruit—is that it’s an outstanding ingredient that can also be deceptive, fickle, and complicated.
So, here we’re going to cover some practical tips and useful approaches. (Then I’m going to go check on my tiny, hard-won batch of homegrown perry.)
First, Give It Some Thought
Before you work with fruit, take a beat and think about it. Fruit adds to the full range of sensory perceptions in our final product, from flavor to aroma to mouthfeel and (probably) the alcoholic strength. That makes it advisable to design your base recipe with fruit in mind, rather than to simply add fruit to a beer.
Consider the flavor of the fruit and how it will interact with your ingredients.
Consider whether you actually need fruit to achieve your flavor goals—after all, those traditional base ingredients of hops, malt, and yeast can produce a huge range of flavors. You might get banana from a weissbier yeast, citrus from New World hops, or strawberry esters from certain English yeasts, to name a few examples. Use what you need and need what you use, but in all cases, think about the overall flavor.
Consider the fruit’s acidity.
Acid is inherent to most fruits. This will brighten your beer in small doses, but it can also become overpowering. If you’re concerned about acid, consider whether there’s a workaround—such as using lemon/lime zest instead of the juice/pulp. Example: For my lime gose, I’ll need to choose whether I’ll use a straight ale yeast and let the citric acid in the lime juice do the tarting-up or go with the zest and pitch a yeast-plus-Lacto strain instead. This is part of a larger pool of fruit-specific considerations around mouthfeel, so don’t focus solely on acid; fruits also add tannins, proteins, and other “feel” elements.
Consider the sugar.
Fruit will add some amount of fermentable sugar. The amount of alcohol it adds may be minor, but the more important question is this: What will your fruit taste like once its sugar is gone? Our daily experiences with fruit and fruit flavors almost never lack that sweetness. If what you love about pineapple is its sugary pop, you might be disappointed once it ferments. If keeping both sweetness and fruit flavor is your goal, there are ways to help build that, such as lactose or a fruitier yeast strain (since esters can add to the impression of sweetness).
Working with Fruit
The first step to using fruit is to go out and get it. Unless you’re growing your own, the best place to go is a local farm. Talk to the farmers—once they know you’re brewing with it, they often can point you toward the products that are a better fit (for example, riper fruit).
Choose Your Weapon.
In what form do you want your fruit? Whole? Puree? Juice?
“Using whole fruit is the best way to get ‘real’ fruit character into a beer,” says Jonathan Porter, owner and brewer at Smog City in Torrance, California. However, he adds that processing your own fruit adds both labor and loss. (The most “craft” approach is rarely the most efficient.)
If you’d rather avoid that work and that loss, aseptic fruit purees are another option—and a popular one these days with commercial brewers. Packaged aseptic puree is ready to add and flavorful. However, it can also be relatively expensive (time is money).
Frozen fruit and juices are other convenient options, though quality and additives can vary widely. Watch out for preservatives or other ingredients that can add unwanted flavors or inhibit yeast function, such as potassium sorbate.
A Word on Extracts
Working with fruit—especially fresh, whole fruit—is often more involved than brewers realize until they’ve done it. Many will take the easy way out and use an extract. While I won’t judge anyone who does, I also doubt they’re making their best beer with it. Even when you use a high-quality extract, there is often a residual faux-flavor—an impression of artificiality—in the beer. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to bite my tongue when a brewer—pro or amateur—has said, “Yup, it’s extract, and you can’t even tell!” At least nine times out of 10, we can tell.
Again, not a judgement, just an observation, as the yogis say.
Processing Fresh Fruit
If you’re starting with whole fruit, there’s some work to be done.
First, give your fruit a good wash—lots of water is fine—and remove any stems, leaves, or other plant material. You might also consider removing the skins, though that depends on the fruit. If you are working with pitted or stone fruits, I suggest removing those, too—while they can deepen the flavor, they also contain cyanide precursors. Rather than poison ourselves, even if mildly, let’s play it safe.
Once the fruit is clean and prepped, toss it into a food processor and puree it: This will increase surface area and generally unlock more flavor and aroma. If you’re pressing the puree because you just want the juice, no flesh, then consider adding some pectic enzyme to the pulp at this stage to increase juice yield. (This depends on whether you think it’s worth the wait; a few hours of resting might increase your yield by a couple of points.)
Finally, to ensure that your fruit is safe to add, make use of heat or cold—either heat-pasteurize it or freeze and thaw it a few times.
John Stemler, former brewmaster at Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, and founder of BGS Beverage Consultants, recommends the heat route. “Just take it to 180°F [82°C] and then lid and chill in the fridge until it’s cool enough to add.”
That last stop may not be necessary, depending on when you’re going to add your fruit.
Adding the Fruit
This is less about how than it is about when.
Working from the beginning of our brewing process, it’s almost never beneficial or necessary to add fruit to the mash. Likewise, adding it early in the boil is risky; the flavor impacts of boiling fruit are hard to predict. If I’m adding fruit on the hot side, it’s nearly always at the very end of the boil or—and this is my preference, if you have the patience and the option—in a post-boil whirlpool at 180°F (82°C).
The advantages of the whirlpool addition include automatic pasteurization, less flavor and aroma loss, and less pectin in the wort compared to a post-fermentation addition. From a testing standpoint, I also like this choice because it means my initial gravity readings are “correct” and include any sugar additions from the fruit.
We can also add the fruit after primary fermentation, either in the same fermentor or a secondary vessel. For my money, I just put it right in the primary, saving myself the risk of contamination or oxidation plus the work of cleaning another fermentor. In either case, if you add the fruit to the fermentor, a dose of pectic enzyme is useful to both increase yield and reduce pectin haze.
Timing your fruit addition is mostly about what you want from it: If the fruit is a supporting flavor, earlier is better; if it’s in the starring role, then add later to better preserve its aromatics.
A World of Fruit
To conclude, we’ll briefly discuss what might be the most important question, and one only you can ultimately answer: Which fruit(s) and which beer style(s)?
Almost any beer style can handle fruit; it’s more a matter of matching intensities. A big, complex beer—a Belgian-style stout, let’s say—needs a big, complex fruit to pair with it (I like Valencia oranges with my stouts). A helles, by comparison, is a candidate for fruit with a milder flavor profile, especially one with lower acid content. Play matchmaker. Of course, you can add a high-intensity fruit to a low-intensity beer and vice-versa, but you’ll need to adjust the volume accordingly. (For more on this, see “Style + Fruit: Let’s Play Matchmaker,” beerandbrewing.com.)
Which fruits are best? Some are tried and true, while others make take more coaxing.
At Round Guys in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, owner-brewer Scott Rudich focuses on melons and more acidic fruits such as lime and grapefruit; he says he likes their ability to clearly express their flavors in a wide range of beer styles.
At Smog City, Porter says he likes to mix it up (in the same beer): “Blend in other fruit purees, or add a small amount of concentrate, to get a more complex fruit character,” he says. “For example, blending a little boysenberry into a raspberry sour, we get a more jammy raspberry character. The same goes for peach sours with puree: We blend 10 percent apricot puree to get a rounder peach profile.” This help-it-along strategy is much like what many of us do when blending hops—choosing an expressive variety to give another one a push—and it works here for the same reasons.
To be sure, there are some fruits that just seem to fight us. Ever since a trip to northern Maine a few years back, my wife has struggled to make a great blueberry beer; still no luck there.
Strawberry is another that’s infamous for disappearing. “Strawberries are particularly troublesome as a fruit additive,” Rudich says. “It’s tough to find aseptic purees, and they tend to not express much strawberry character in beer. It’s primarily why you don’t see a lot of strawberry beers.” I don’t want to belabor that point; just know that if you take on that challenge, you are not alone in the struggle. Blending with other berries is one way to give those a push.
Not so long ago, fruit beers were the butt of many jokes among savvy beer nerds. Maybe they still are, in some circles. But fruit beer has come a long way, as brewers have learned new tricks and expanded their repertoires. You, too, can add it to your arsenal.
Just be prepared to learn some new lessons along the way and adjust your expectations accordingly—sort of like when you turn a bushel of fruit into roughly six bottles of product. (But what a wonderful six bottles they’ll be.)