A neighbor drops off a big sack of gorgeous, orangey-red persimmons, and you thank them. Now what?
Those persimmons sit on the counter with all the other wonderful wintertime fruit that you’ve bought or have otherwise received, harvested, or acquired—and these will vary, depending on where you live, what’s in season, and what your local stores like to stock. It’s a good time for tropical and citrus fruits, but other more local produce may appear, too. For me, it might be kiwis, pomegranates, pears, clementines and other small oranges, tangerines, kumquats, cranberries, Meyer lemons.… My counter gets crowded, but it sure beats fruitcake.
So, why not winter fruit beers? Those summertime staples such as berries, cherries, and peaches get enough love. How about some kumquat saison, persimmon sour, or coconut-lime Kölsch?
Let’s ponder the possibilities.
The Base-Beer Canvas
The first thing to consider is the base beer. The style ought to complement the fruit and help show it off, rather than weigh it down. Personally, I tend to steer clear of styles that are big on specialty malts, saving those stouts, porters, and dark Belgian ales for the cherries, berries, and plums of summer and early fall. (However, if porters and such are your thing, don’t hold back—I’ve had several sublime chocolate-orange porters.)
I find that Kölsch lends itself well to being a platform for many of these winter fruits, with a soft, rounded palate of delicate malt that marries nicely with citrus flavors. Clean American blond and wheat ales work well for similar reasons, as does Belgian-style witbier—just swap out the orange peel and coriander for other fruits and spices. Tart beers are also a popular choice, and there are various options—addressed by other articles in this issue—for the kind of acidification that can make fruit flavor pop. Also, as we’ve demonstrated many times in this space, malt extracts (with or without steeping grains) are more than capable of establishing the foundation for any of those base styles, so you can spend more time thinking about the fruit.
Let’s not forget the yeast and hops and how they might serve the fruit.
I like to use yeast whose fermentation character complements the fruit I’m using. Fruity esters can be tricky, either giving your fruit a push or muddling it. Fermenting at higher temperatures can promote those esters. I like a Kölsch yeast, if I want clean neutrality, or saison yeast, when I want some of those yeast-driven characteristics. Also consider Brettanomyces if you want to add some funky complexity, giving it additional weeks or months to chew through all the sugars.
Hops can also complement and even boost the fruit character. For example, Hüll Melon has a profile that can lend notes of strawberry and honeydew melon; I love how they layer into my coconut-lime Kölsch.
The most important thing to keep in mind: The base beer is there in a supporting role, while the fruit should be the A-list star.
Choosing the fruit is part of the fun of brewing a beer like this. Think about what you really like to drink and eat—it’s no fun sitting on gallons and gallons of papaya-guava blond ale if you’re not really a fan of those fruits. Consider choosing a variety of fruits from your local market and tasting them—this can widen your sensory vocabulary while giving you unexpected recipe ideas.
Consider the character of each fruit and how it might affect the beer. Also consider freshness and ripeness. Remember: It doesn’t have to look good; it just has to taste good. Cranberry is an example of fruit that adds more color than flavor but also brings a dry, tannic tartness that can be interesting. Lemons, clementines, and other oranges can be fantastic, but be aware of their acidity and how that might clash with hop bitterness; you might want to dial back IBUs.
Before you brew with your chosen fruit, prep it for use. Wash it with hot water, in case the fruit is coated in any kind of wax. Cut it up into small pieces—one- to two-inch chunks (2.5 to 5 cm)—and freeze it. Freezing is an efficient way to break up the fruit’s cell walls, releasing its juices upon thawing. Use a vacuum sealer if you have one. I don’t, so I use a water-displacement method: Simply place the cut-up fruit in a gallon-size ziplock bag and submerge it in a bowl of water to displace the air in the bag. Then store it in the freezer and let the magic happen. You can also juice or puree your fruits before freezing.
Adding the Fruit
Generally, wait until after primary fermentation to add your fruit. Fermentation produces alcohol and lowers the pH—both of which are useful in warding off some risks of natural-fruit additions. Racking to a plastic bucket with some headspace is ideal, to help avoid any gushing that may occur from secondary fermentation with the fruit.
If adding zest, use a Microplane-type grater on fresh fruit and avoid getting any of the bitter pith—you just want those beautiful essential oils in the skin. You can put the zest in a fine mesh bag for easy removal later, after steeping, or you can instead add it to the end of the boil or whirlpool, before fermentation.
Without wading into the debate about whether coconut is a fruit (call it “field beer” if you must), I will say that it makes a wonderful ingredient. I like to toast unsweetened, organic coconut until lightly brown, then steep this in the finished beer before packaging.
It’s also worth thinking about whether you want a clear or hazy final product. Some fruits will leave behind a pectic haze, so if you are going for clarity, consider adding pectic enzyme or fining agents such as Irish moss—or just wait patiently for the beer to drop clear. Note that fresh-fruit aroma may diminish if you wait too long. Personally, I don’t mind some natural haze from the fruit.
How much fruit to add really depends on the fruit itself and how intense you want the fruit flavor to be. A typical amount is one-and-a-half to three pounds per gallon (or 180 to 360 grams per liter), but I know brewers who add as much as five or six pounds of fruit per gallon. That tends to be a lot of extra liquid and sugar, and you will want to account for this; using an additional secondary fermentor is an option, if the volume demands it.
Here’s a tip: With freshly grated citrus zest, you can add it to the finished beer gradually until you decide the flavor is just right. That way you don’t end up with something that smells like bad car air freshener or Lemon Pledge. The gratings from roughly two large citrus fruits is usually plenty for a batch—but this way you can taste until you think it’s enough.
Finally—and this is good advice for any brew—keep good notes. If you alter a recipe, try to change just one variable at time, to keep better track of what works and what doesn’t.
So now you have a plan for what to do with that delicious seasonal fruit, and soon you’ll have a present of your own to drop off with family, friends, and neighbors. I reckon they’ll like it better than fruitcake.