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Fruit Gets Personal: Brewing with Heirloom Varietals

For Troy Casey, owner of Casey Brewing & Blending, brewing with fruit is much more than just selecting the fruit—it’s a relationship with local fruit growers and an exploration of the distinct flavors that specific fruit varietals contribute to beer.

Emily Hutto July 15, 2017

Fruit Gets Personal: Brewing with Heirloom Varietals Primary Image

“It’s getting warmer in our valley right now, the flowers are budding, and the apricot trees are in bloom,” says Troy Casey, the owner at Casey Blending and Brewing in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. There’s a certain romance to his tone as he waxes about the local fruit that he’s using to ferment his cult-followed oak barrel–aged, blended beers.

“Every day I’m looking at the weather in Palisade,” Casey says. It’s springtime in the Roaring Fork Valley, and a late frost could wipe out the apricots he sources from The Grand Valley, known for its orchards and vineyards. “We can freeze cherries, blackberries, or raspberries but such delicate stone fruits as apricots need to be used right when they’re available.”

Spring is when Casey and crew make a lot of the company’s base beers. “We make a very small amount of different base beers, and then we go one hundred different directions with the fruit in even smaller batches,” he says.

Casey has fermented beers with more than thirty fruits and sub-varieties of fruits, all of which are sourced within the state of Colorado. They belong to three series: The Fruit Stand Series, the company’s saison base with what he calls “a normal amount of fruit”; The Casey Preserves, a double version of Fruit Stand with the same saison base and twice the amount of fruit; and The Cut featuring Oak Theory (a mixed-fermentation, barrel-aged blond sour ale) as a base with more than 2 pounds of fruit per gallon.

Cherries

It first started when Casey found Montmorency cherries, classic pie cherries, in Hotchkiss, Colorado. He made a Belgian-style kriek and was surprised when it didn’t taste like a kriek at all. “That’s because traditional krieks are made with a cherry with darker flesh and darker skin, I learned,” he says. “And I thought, well I need to get those cherries.”

So he kept searching, and he found darker-skinned Balaton cherries. “Balaton cherries are a more intense version of Montmorency, in my opinion,” he says. “The skin and flesh are much darker. Notes of cinnamon and spice in beers are common.”

He also heard about Danubes, which are similar to white wine grapes. “I’ve known about Danube sour cherries for years, and I call every year and ask how are they looking. And every year, the farmer says, ‘Oh, we lost them to the birds.’ This year was the first year we could use those cherries.”

The wait was worth it for Casey, who is committed exclusively to Colorado fruit. While he waited for the Danube cherries, he found nine other Colorado-grown cherry varieties for his beers, including sweet Bing cherries and sweeter Stella cherries.

Plums

Casey has also created beers with nectarines, apricots, blackberries, multiple types of red and white grapes, six kinds of peaches, and seven varieties of plums. The fruit imparts fermentable sugar for the cocktail of yeast and bacteria that Casey adds to his barrels. Although the beers produced are fruit-forward, they aren’t sweet like the fruits that made them—in fact, his beers are characteristically tart, funky, and dry finishing.

“I think the plums we’ve used have far more detectable flavor differences in our beers,” Casey says. “Santa Rosa plums present themselves with classic plum flavors, while golden Shiro plums provide no color to the beer and have heavy citrus qualities. You’d never know it was a plum in the beer. Elephant heart plums are blood red and, along with the classic plum flavor, bring a dark red foam to the beer that doesn’t fade away.”

Casey says his fascination with fruit varietals might stem from going apple and raspberry picking as a kid or from his mom, the nutritionist, who always encouraged him to eat fresh fruit. His appreciation for breweries such as Drie Fonteinen in Beersel, Belgium, might have something to do with it, too.

Peaches & Raspberries

“I’m always trying to find new fruits,” he says. “When it comes to blackberries and nectarines, which are scarce in Colorado, I’ll take what I can get. But I’m more specific about peaches, particularly about who grows them. Sometimes choosing the farmer is more important than choosing the variety, or sub-variety, of fruit.”

One of Casey’s agricultural partners is a farmer in Palisade with whom Casey is working to plant a raspberry field for the brewery. He’s planting 1,000 brambles of three different raspberry varieties: Polan, Joan J, and Heritage. These raspberries will be varietals that are mostly grown for jam. “They are high in sugar and flavor, perfect for fermenting with beer,” Casey says.

“It’s very tough to find Colorado-grown raspberries. They’re a labor-intensive crop with a couple years of production before peak harvest. I wanted to help a farmer do it. I’m helping him get it going in return for buying all the fruit from him in a year or two. I really want raspberries.”

He really wants gooseberries, too. So soon Casey and friends will also head out to a you-pick farm growing gooseberries on the Front Range, and he’s planning to experiment with apples and pears this summer.

A Way of Life

Fermenting with fruit is never boring. “People ask me what my favorite beer is, and it’s almost always something that’s in process because of anticipation,” Casey says.

Fermenting with fruit is a form of preserving. “I imagine making fruit beers as a form of preserve, like making jams or jellies,” he says. “During the winter, you can’t eat fresh Palisade peaches but you can drink one of our fruit beers.”

And finally, fermenting with fruit—especially whole local fruit—is ancestral. His process is deeply rooted in the life of the fruit he uses and dictated by the varieties and sub-varieties he can find in Colorado. “This is the way beer used to be made; it’s what created regional beer styles,” he proclaims. “We make a living breathing product, and getting to work with people who are as passionate about their fruit as we are about our beer is very special to me.”

Advice For Homebrewers

Use Local Fruit

“Local fruit is the right way to do it. To know your grower is to learn a lot about the fruit: Work with the farmer and get it at peak ripeness.” Casey recommends to homebrewers that they explore their local farmers’ markets for fruit-beer inspiration. “That’s how we find a lot of our growers.”

Use Whole Fruit

All of the fruit in Casey beers is whole fruit. “Puree makes great beer; it’s just not as unique. Using the least adulterated fruit is important to me because that’s flavor you can’t get any other way.”

Using whole fruit can create some challenges in separation and, ultimately, some chunks of fruit in your final product. “We don’t squeeze the fruit. It either rises to the top of the tank or drops to the bottom, so we pump out of the middle and use a small strainer for the larger fruit chunks. Often you’ll find small pieces of fruit in our beer, and consumers are okay with that,” Casey says. “Mashed potatoes with zero lumps weren’t hand-mashed. Consumers want lumps; They want that authenticity. It’s just like people wanting to see haze from their hops because that translates to more flavorful beer.”

In most cases, whole fruit doesn’t put your beer at risk of unexpected souring. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten off-flavors from using whole fruit,” Casey says. “I’m of the belief that anything on the fruit skin is aerobic, so it will want oxygen. The amount of culture we’re already adding to our beer will help compete against any wild yeast or bacteria that might be on the fruit.”

Be Patient

It seems the secret sauce in Casey’s beers is patience. His beers age anywhere from 3 to 24 months in barrels, and the beer-making process begins long before that. “It takes time to cultivate relationships with farmers, time for the fruit to grow, time to anticipate peak ripeness and then harvest,” he says. “Then it takes time to age beers, time to bottle condition, and then time to sell them. This isn’t something you can rush.”

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PHOTO: MATT GRAVES

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