Listen: Pickle beers are already a thing. If you haven’t seen one out of any of your local breweries, it may only be a matter of time before they give it a try. Even if we hadn’t noticed this trend anecdotally, an Untappd search turns up more than 1,400 pickle-themed beers.
To ask why people are making pickle beers is to ask the wrong question. Indeed, that is usually the wrong question here, in our Special Ingredient department. This is where we set aside our love of sublime things such as great drinkability and Reinheitsgebot purity to embrace mad science. Insert Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We could roll that quote like a news-channel chyron over these articles, and it would always fit.
It certainly fits with pickle beer. Here, we don’t ask why. We ask, why the hell not? And—much more interestingly—how?
Texas Pickle Beer
Most of the pickle beers out there are based on gose, which makes sense—the style’s acidity and salinity are two traits it shares with a classic dill-pickle brine.
Some of the first and most successful pickle beers can be found in Texas. The progenitor may well have been Kelly Meyer, former owner and brewer at New Braunfels Brewing near San Antonio. His PKL FKR—a 3.2 percent ABV mixed-culture wheat beer refermented with pickle juice—remains popular at the brewery.
Others have taken the idea and run with it. Perhaps the best known and most widely available example is the Best Maid Sour Pickle Beer from Fort Worth’s Martin House Brewing. Described as a “gose with pickle juice,” Best Maid is a year-round beer and top seller for Martin House; it also comes in Spicy as well as Bloody Mary. The beer is a team-up with Best Maid Pickles, also based in Fort Worth.
Another Texas brewery that’s had success with its pickle beers is Freetail in San Antonio. Puro Pickles is one of Freetail’s core offerings—as is Puro Pickles Picoso, a spicier version that includes ancho, chipotle, and pequin peppers. For the Puro Picoso, Freetail’s website even includes a michelada recipe from their head of brewing operations, Jason Davis.
While crediting Meyer with inventing the style, Davis tells the story of how they came to brew a pickle beer at Freetail: “I should preface this with the fact that I was staunchly against making a pickle beer,” he says. “I believed—and still believe to a degree—that it is a fad and certainly a niche market that was a waste of time and energy. Not to mention, it smacks of bald imitation and lack of imagination. But I had no say in the matter.”
That’s because the ownership team knew that a pickle beer would sell in their market. “Resigned to our fate, my head brewer Cody Welch and I set about formulating a gose that provided all the flavor and nuance of a pickle without the use of pickle brine. Starting with a solid, traditional grain bill for Leipziger gose with pils, Munich, and weizen malts, [we] performed an overnight kettle-sour and then added salt, cucumber puree, coriander, dill seed, and black peppercorn in the whirlpool. This first iteration was a fantastic beer that any brewer would be proud of. Unfortunately, that was not the opinion of the brass in the company—it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. That turned out to be vinegar.
“The brass wanted pickle juice added, despite our best efforts,” Davis says. “We ended up partnering with a national brand based in Texas—The Pickle Juice Company. We launched in early 2021, and sales skyrocketed through the first quarter, planting us firmly in the top 10 craft-beer packages in Texas during that period.”
Today, Puro Pickles remains a solid top-three seller for Freetail, just behind their IPA and helles.
Pickle Beer Goes Nationwide
While Texas brewers should get credit for ushering along the niche, those in other states have inevitably seen the potential of the pickle.
Cincinnati’s Urban Artifact brews a gose-based beer called Pickle, made with lots of cucumber and fresh dill rather than pickle brine. The novelty appears to have some staying power, despite perhaps not being as immediately appealing as their fruit beers. (“Yep, that’s pickle,” says one Untappd review. “Better than you’d think!” says another.) Like several other successful pickle beers, there’s also a spicy version.
A more recent entry—now available in more than 40 states—comes from Destihl Brewery in Normal, Illinois. Destihl’s Dill Pickle Sour Beer is a cross-promotional collab with SuckerPunch Gourmet, a pickle company based in Bridgeview, Illinois. Nominally based on gose, the beer is a kettle-sour blended with a custom pickle brine before packaging.
Head brewer Alex Albers says that Destihl’s production team is making their own brine on their pilot system. While based on SuckerPunch’s flavorful brine, this version, meant for blending with sour beer, has somewhat less salt and garlic. “We worked with SuckerPunch Gourmet to make these reductions based on sensory feedback during tasting panels,” Albers says. “Ultimately, these changes led to a finished beer that appealed to more people.”
After some experimentation, Albers and team decided that blending after fermentation was the way to go. “The process that we landed on was to transfer the brine into the packaging tank, purge with CO2, then transfer the base beer onto it,” he says. “Depending on the batch size, it can be between 590 to 1,180 gallons [2,233 to 6,814 liters] of brine.”
As gose already has a salt addition, and pickle brine can be intensely salty, Albers says it took some time to dial that in. “We reduced the salt addition in the kettle almost completely and the salt in the brine by 50 percent,” he says. “Even with the reduction, the result is still plenty salty.”
For mad brewers who want to try making their own pickle beers, blending to taste before packaging does appear to be a sensible approach. “I’d start on a small scale,” Albers says, “dosing in pickle brine at different percentages until you land on a ratio that tastes good to you. Another important thing to keep in mind is that brine is mostly water, so you will want to adjust your OG up to account for watering down your base beer.”
So far, there is no spicy variation on Destihl Dill Pickle Sour Beer—but Albers says they are excited to start piloting new versions. Meanwhile, it seems inevitable that many other breweries across the country already are dialing up their local craft pickle makers and asking, “Hey, could you help me open this jar?”