“Can I put figs into this helles?” That’s a real question I got from a homebrewer. My answer was the same as always when brewers ask me what’s possible: “Sure. Why would you want to?”
My answering a question with a question isn’t meant as smart-assery—it’s meant to be taken seriously. Brewers tend to do things because they can or because they never have before. If that’s the way you want to roll, cool—we all like to experiment. Another approach, though, is to make deliberate choices in brewing, with a specific goal in mind, for a specific reason. And that brings us back to my reply.
“Can” doesn’t equal “should,” and this is all the more true in specialty beers. When it comes to adding fruit to beer, we would be wasting a huge range of excellent and interesting flavors if we didn’t canvass the countryside (or at least the produce section) for great flavor additions. I’m simply arguing that we should start with the why.
In that spirit, let’s explore the matchmaking process that can guide your choices in fruit beers, and let’s consider recipe and process approaches to making those beers “work.” Getting where you want is a matter of identifying the goal, the ingredients, and the process.
“Can I put X fruit into Y style?” Sure, you can. Now let’s think about why you might (or might not) want to.
Fruit as an Ingredient
Fruit is a fantastic addition to a lot of beers. “Fruit,” though, stands for a whole class of ingredients with myriad expressions, nuances, intensities, and effects in finished beer. Before we match up a fruit with a recipe, we should think about what we’re up against.
Eat a dried apricot, then a fresh raspberry, then bite a lemon. You’ll find an increasing degree of flavor intensity across those three fruits. That’s why the first thing you should consider as a brewer is whether the style and recipe you have in mind will “hold up” to the fruit’s intensity—or, alternatively, whether the beer might overshadow the fruit.
I was discussing this topic with my wife—herself an award-winning homebrewer, particularly in specialty categories—and I said, “Just think about strawberries.”
Her reply? “I would love to see a strawberry stout, like chocolate-dipped strawberries!” She’s right—it’s a good concept. But strawberries, because of their mild flavor and high water content, don’t usually “show up” all that well in beer. How many beers have you tasted with intense strawberry flavor? How many manage that feat but end up tasting fake or extract-derived?
Tim Ohst, director of brewery operations at Sly Fox in Pennsylvania, says it’s better to “stay on the ‘less is more’ end of the spectrum.” One possible pitfall, he says, is “an unpleasant ‘perfumey’ aroma, in the case of too much extract.”
A beer like stout, Ohst says, holds up better to a “darker, richer” fruit, which is why they hit their stout with black cherries. Tim also warns of the dangers of too much fruit flavor for a style: At Sly Fox, he says, “we prefer our fruited beers to still taste more like beer than fruit juice. Too much can lead to an overly sweet product.”
Sweetness, Sugar, Fermentation
Another thing to consider: How much sugar and/or sweetness comes from your fruit addition. Fruit typically has sugar in it, and adding some—unless you kill or filter out your yeast—is going to result in more alcohol in your finished beer. That affects flavor, too. Be sure to account for that in your recipe and maybe in your fruit addition.
Second, fruit that’s been fermented may taste very different after your yeast cells are done robbing it of its simpler sugars. Some sweetness will remain, either because the yeast leaves some sugars behind or because alcohol itself is a bit sweet. But adding a sweet cherry to your beer doesn’t guarantee your beer will then taste like sweet cherries. Try, then trust. Sweet cherries taste like a lot more than “cherry.” You’re potentially adding skins, juice, pulp, sugar, stems, pits, and more. Options include adding fruit juice to avoid tannins or bitterness from skins or adjusting IBUs or chocolate malts to leave room for the flavors that weren’t all that noticeable in the fruit before fermentation.
Next, how do the other components of the style interact with the fruit flavors you’re adding, and vice-versa? This is where having a clear sense of your final product goal is worthwhile. In a perfect world, your fruit will do one or more of the following to the beer’s flavors: complement (add to/augment), amplify (increase the volume of), or contrast (highlight by comparison).
Jeremy Myers, head brewer and cofounder of Neshaminy Creek Brewing in Croydon, Pennsylvania, offers an example: When using tropical or citrus fruit in a Belgian ale, you’ll likely end up amplifying the yeast’s fruity esters rather than its peppery phenols, which may then seem relatively muted.
It’s a Coverup
Last, I don’t recommend adding fruit to “fix” a beer that didn’t turn out quite right. In an admirable display of brewing humility, a friend who shall remain nameless—but who has founded a small brewery as well as been a homebrewer—shared this story about a fruited beer gone wrong: “I attempted a Belgian dubbel once that, despite a complex grain bill and Belgian yeast, had no actual Belgian character. To fix this, I added many pounds of elderberries, because adding an odd fruit to questionable beer always produces stellar results.” (Do I detect sarcasm here?) That’s not to say that this can never work, just that it’s challenging.
So, to summarize:
- Match the intensity of your fruit to the intensity of the flavors in the style.
- Account for the sugar (or lack thereof) and other flavors in the fruit you’re adding.
- Add fruit flavors for a particular reason.
- Don’t look at fruit (or any special ingredient, really) as some kind of Band-Aid.
Use What You Have, Add What You Don’t
There are two ways to get fruit flavors into your beer: Leverage the compounds that your brewing ingredients share with fruit and emphasize them; or add fruit primarily (or secondarily, as the case may be) to your existing beer. Either way, the style you want to brew will play a role.
When it comes to fruit flavors in beer ingredients, we’re usually talking about hops and yeast. True, you can get dark-fruit flavors from some crystal or roasted malts, but they’re usually subtle and surrounded by other malt flavors. Hops and yeast, on the other hand, can be selected and promoted to jam out a specific fruit flavor.
If you want tropical fruit flavor to add some interest to that wheat beer, then a wide selection of American and Down Under hops can help get you there. If it’s blackberries you want, try Bramling Cross hops. And I like few things better than when someone asks how to make a beer that “tastes like banana bread,” and I get to bust out the words “isoamyl acetate.”
Whether or not you’re going to add proper fruit, it’s always an option to use hops and/or yeast that mirror, mimic, or complement those fruit flavors. If they happen to match existing style elements, all the better. For example, using tropical-type hops in a fruit-forward American pale or amber ale is a nice mesh because those beers are conducive to a big hops punch. Same goes for a “banana bread” hefeweizen (or, a favorite of mine, the banana-bread-with-chocolate-chips dunkelweizen). This isn’t the Olympics: degree of difficulty doesn’t have to be a thing. Cut yourself some slack and pick a style that lets you help the fruit along.
When you’re going outside the flavor wheel and need to rely on fruit or extract for all or most of the fruit character, life can get a little harder—but choosing a good style match will buy you some breathing space. If you plan to use whole fruit and want all of those flavors—juice, flesh, even plant matter—go for a subtler style. Fermenting a helles atop whole strawberries will yield a degree of authenticity in the final product but only because you can taste it. The same approach might fail in a Belgian tripel because there’s so much else going on (unless you’re adding a genuinely absurd amount of fruit, which is an option, but makes it harder to hit your target).
If I had my heart set on that Strawberry Tripel, rather than using whole, unprocessed fruit, I might use a dried or pureed-and-pressed product instead, to get more stereotypical “berry” flavor and less of the “strawberry” itself. That might do in a pale grist with higher alcohol, but what if I want to double back to my wife’s desire for a Chocolate-Dipped Strawberry American Stout? There I might go with a tincture or extract, where I’ll need a firm punch of flavor and where (conveniently) the overall intensity might mask the extract-derived artificiality.
These examples can be reverse-engineered to guide your recipe design, too. The important thing is to mate the form of your product to the beer-style characteristics that might impact flavor, whether you’re going from style-to-fruit or fruit-to-style. Whether you’re saying, “Gee, what will I do with these whole strawberries,” or “What kind of strawberry product do I need to get good fruit character in a Baltic Porter,” the arithmetic is the same.
Take Dead Aim
I’ve given this advice so many times it’s bordering on cliché, but take dead aim: Have a specific goal in mind and go for it. If you do, you’ll almost always end up with a good beer (even when it’s not quite the beer you wanted). This isn’t a plea to be boring or safe. By all means, experiment, try new things, pair fruits to unexpected styles and add odd fruits to simpler recipes—just do it with purpose.
The nice thing about having a plan—whether that plan is matching intensity, or amplifying flavors, or adding a subtle fruit hint to a strong style, or anything else—is that if you nail your beer, you can make it again. If you don’t, you can adjust the plan.
Choose a style, choose a fruit, choose a way to get it into that beer, and enjoy the results.
Photos: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com