For a long time, it seemed like brewers and beer geeks alike were irrationally derisive of the Fruit Beer, and to this day we still hear jokes about the “best way to drink a fruit beer – step one, pour it down the drain.” You can be as dismissive as you like and showcase your fruit intolerance, but I feel obligated to say that you’re really missing out. For one thing, breweries (the ones that let the fruit complement the beer) are making some killer fruited beers these days; and for another, making your own adds a whole new dimension to many of your favorite beers and classic beer styles. Embrace it. Evolve your position on fruit in beer.
As a Specialty style, Fruit Beer is necessarily broad (or, more accurately, user- and declared-style-defined). The overarching theme of the style is “balance,” though, with a beer that’s still recognizable as “beer” but also with “evident” fruit character.
In order to get a proper evaluation, you must specify the fruit or fruits used (and if you’re adding anything other than fruit – like spices – you’re in the wrong category) as well as the base style. That style doesn’t need to be a “classic” style as defined within the guidelines, but it must provide some kind of baseline information to the judges to evaluate the “beer” side of the “fruit beer” construction.
If you make a peach American Pale Ale, then you can say so. But if you make a pale peach ale with six percent ABV, but only limited hops presence, then just call it a “peach pale ale” (and consider noting the limited hops in your description for the judges, just to be sure they get the message). The base style should be noticeable/accurate across all evaluation elements (appearance, mouthfeel, etc.), and the fruit flavor and aroma can range from subtle to intense. The guidelines also point out that, generally speaking, your fruit(s) of choice shouldn’t add sweetness to the beer – added sugars should be fermented off.
We can’t get into too specific a recipe here, because they’re obviously going to vary, but I can definitely provide some good general tips.
First, identify what flavors your fruit will add, and consider adjusting your recipe to complement or amplify them. If it’s a subtle flavor (strawberry, for example) you’d want to ease back on some other flavor contributors to give your fruit the chance to shine through, and you can also add ingredients that augment and/or mimic that flavor to make it seem more pronounced (for example, selecting an English yeast strain with a good berry ester profile).
No one said you need to get all of your fruit flavor from the fruit! If it’s a strong flavor (grapefruit, raspberry) then think about bulking up the recipe’s other flavor elements (swap in some Munich for Pale 2-row, for example) to ensure that the fruit doesn’t overpower the beer.
Second, always consider the elements you’re adding to your beer with fruit other than fruit flavor. Different fruits can add bitterness, acidity, haze, changes in color, changes in mouthfeel (puckering, resin), and more. Where appropriate, adjust your recipe to account for these changes in advance, then adjust after trying out the finished product.
Third, pay close attention to style selection. Some styles set up better for fruit in general or specific fruits in particular. I tend to think that most styles can be fruited with the right fruit, and I tend to match the intensity of the fruit’s flavor with the assertiveness of the style. Big, dark beers stand up well to bright, acidic fruit. Light, pale beers leave room to taste subtle, softer fruits.
Last, by all means, blend multiple fruits. Going back to “weaker” fruits like strawberry and blueberry, you can get more mileage out of them by pairing them with complementary fruits. My Rhubarb Stout was underwhelming – until I paired it with some cranberry, and then it really took off!
Decide on a form of fruit first, based on availability and freshness and quality – if you can’t get it good, local, and fresh, then a canned puree is probably your best bet. You can add whole fruit, dice/crush it, or puree it – your call, but the more you break it down the more flavor you’re likely to get out of it, so let your target flavor profile guide you. You also want to make sure you’re adding just fruit, so read that label to be sure there aren’t preservatives or other additions that could affect flavor and fermentation.
I tend to add my fruit just at the end of primary fermentation, for two reasons. First, it means the beer has some defense against contamination from anything on the fruit. Second, the yeast should be fine with processing the sugars you’re adding along with your fruit. Sanitize your funnel, and dump it in. An additional 1-2 weeks of contact time with the yeast before cold crashing and packaging will suffice for most fruit additions.
Last, you’ll get more out of your fruit in terms of flavor and fermentation if you help it break down any pectin. 1-2 teaspoons of pectic enzyme (cheap and easy to find at any home brew or wine making shop) into five gallons should be plenty, and will improve both flavor and clarity.
Fruit beers aren’t some kind of cop-out style designed for people who don’t want to taste the “beer” in their beer – if you can’t taste the beer, you’re not doing it very well (with all due respect to the professionals who want beers with “so much fruit it coats the inside of your glass” – real quote). Take some time developing your recipe, and plan on a couple of batches to dial it in. You’ll end up with a great new beer in your repertoire.