It’s tempting to think, from time to time, that there’s nothing new under the sun in the beer world—that it’s all been done, and now it’s just a matter of recycling and reinvention. Then you hear about something that truly never has been done before, not as far as you’ve ever heard.
When it comes to monk fruit—an Asian fruit whose extract is used for zero-calorie, artificial sweeteners—we are still in the earliest days. But a few brewers are using it as an ostensibly natural way to balance out lighter, bone-dry beers. We have learned what we could.
What Is Monk Fruit?
Monk fruit is a gourd, basically. Its Chinese name is luo han go. It is said to be incredibly sweet-tasting, and anywhere from a quarter to a third of it is sugar (mainly fructose and glucose). That sweetness is somehow intensified by mogrosides—molecules that bind sugars and can be extracted to make artificial sweeteners. During the extraction process, those mogrosides are separated from the sugars, but they remain sweet themselves. It has become a fashionable option in natural-food circles, propelled by the popularity of low-carb diets.
Was monk fruit on anyone’s radar before 2019? Not for many in the beer world—not yet. But when Nielsen consumer polling data in 2018 found that low-calorie monk-fruit sweeteners were on the rise, we should have guessed that someone in beer would look into it.
Give Dogfish Head credit for bringing it into the mainstream. Debuting last March was Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA, brewed with monk-fruit extract. At 4 percent ABV and 3.6 grams of carbohydrates per 12 ounces, it is fermented down to the bone, with nary a sugar left. The monk-fruit extract balances that out with a bit of sweetness and body. Dogfish Head says it uses a proprietary enzyme process to break down the fruit for use in Slightly Mighty.
Another brewery that’s been using monk fruit in some form is Weld-Werks in Greeley, Colorado. Their Fit Bits is a slimmer-but-still-juicy take on their popular Juicy Bits hazy IPA. Neil Fisher, co-owner and head brewer, says that they like monk fruit because it has a unique fruit flavor that adds something beyond simple sweetness.
“We’re using it in the juice-concentrate form, which from our trials has the most flavor and aroma,” he says. “But it doesn’t have the same sweetness potency as some of the powdered products.”
Fisher says that WeldWerks uses glucoamylase for higher attenuation in Fit Bits, which can reach a gravity at or below 1.000. “So, we use the monk fruit to build back in sweetness and body,” he says.
How much to use in your beer? That’s difficult to say, since there are a range of products available that differ in potency. The best advice might be to see what you can find locally, then test tiny measurements in a known volume of finished beer. Consider how it affects the taste, aroma, and body. When you find the right ratio, scale it up.
As more commercial breweries try it out, it’s inevitable that homebrewers will tinker, too. Given where food and drink trends are headed, interest will certainly continue to rise in “lifestyle beers”—especially if tasty and flavorful beers can be packed into lower-calorie, lower-carb frames without much loss of character.