By Lauren Chapin
RISMEDIA, August 23, 2008-(MCT)-Three years ago O’Fallon Brewery near St. Louis quietly launched Wheach-a wheat beer flavored with peach extract. At first the brewery made fewer than 1,000 cases, but this year it is producing between 7,000 and 8,000 cases.
“We can’t make enough of it,” says co-owner Fran Caradonna. “It is a very drinkable beer, especially in the summer. It’s one that people will try, as opposed to the bigger, bolder, more challenging beers.”
At farmers markets across the country, it’s high season for orchard-fresh apples, peaches, cherries and berries, and local brewpubs and regional craft brewers are adding those same fruits to their wares and watching their sales grow.
McCoy’s Public House brewmaster Keith Thompson has made a Redlight Raspberry Wheat since the Westport brewpub opened in 1997. Like his peers at O’Fallon, Thompson adds fruit extract to wheat beer to create his aromatic quaffs.
This fall Boulevard Brewery is set to launch a sour cherry-infused beer, which is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels and uses Boulevard’s Sixth Glass Quadrupel as its base. Sour cherry puree is added for flavoring. The dark, broody beer spends 18 months in the barrel, making it a chewier, more robust version than typical wheat-based fruit beers.
In 2007, fruit beer sales grew a stunning 37%, making it the fastest-growing segment of the beer industry, according to Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association.
John Wheeler, co-owner of Pop A Top Liquor and Deli in Liberty, Mo., stocks at least 25 fruit beers. At a recent sampling at the store, Lindeman’s Lambic Framboise was the most popular with customers, although he also sold two cases of Pyramid Apricot Wheat and nine bottles of the Unibroue Cherry, which retails for $8.49 a bottle.
“Fruit beers are really popular in the summer,” says Rocko Orr, a beer and wine salesman for the wine and spirits distributor Glazers Midwest. A few of his hot sellers include national brands Abita Purple Haze, Leinenkugel ‘s Berry Weiss, Pyramid Apricot Ale and Major Tom’s Pomegranate Wheat.
The variety of fruit that goes into these thirst-quenching summer brews is as diverse as any farmer s market stand, from staples like apples, apricots, blueberries and cherries to more exotic offerings, such as cassis, a European black currant, and pomegranates.
As far back as the 1500s, Belgian brewmasters knew that adding fruit to beer was a way to pretty up the flavor and help it last longer, especially in the days before pasteurization.
Belgian brewmasters add real fruit to “sour beer”-or unblended, naturally and spontaneously fermented beer. But the fruit esters-beerspeak for the flavors and aromas-didn’t last long if the beer was unpasteurized because the wild yeast absorbed all the fruit’s sweetness. With pasteurization, beer makers found they could retain the fruit flavors and sweetness because the process stopped unintentional fermentation, which produces off-flavors.
Belgian or Belgian-style beers tend to be made with bolder, sour beer bases such as a lambic, a Belgian wheat that is spontaneously fermented by freeborn, ambient yeasts and bacteria. Belgian beers also tend to use real fruits and juices instead of extracts, typically resulting in more powerful and flavorful quaffs than their American counterparts.
American fruit brews tend to be made from lighter, softer lagers or wheat beers, although some breweries are using Imperial Amber Ale or Stouts as their base.
“Real fruit is less consistent than extract, with differences in sugar content and pectin levels. And the fruit can clog hoses and equipment,” McCoy’s Thompson says. “With an extract, customers will get the same thing every time they order it.”
Over the years, Chris Swersey has watched the popularity of American-made fruit beers ebb and flow.
“In the mid-1990s everybody had a raspberry wheat beer,” says Swersey, competition manager for the Great American Beer Festival held each October in Denver. “The popularity declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then brewers started doing different things with the beers, emulating traditional Belgian fruit styles.”
The competition draws entrants from 400 breweries from across the country and last year there were 94 entries in the fruit and vegetable category, making it one of the largest categories in the three-day competition.
Although women tend to gravitate to the fruit beers because they are sweeter, fruit beers are not frilly, frothy girly drinks. For customers who say they don’t like beer, Thompson encourages his staff to offer a sample of the raspberry beer because it tends to be lighter.
“That appeals to a younger crowd who don’t drink stronger beers and want to enjoy something light and refreshing, especially in the 21-to-27 age demographic,” agrees Tobias Case, assistant brewer at McCoy’s who also works at Boulevard Brewery.
Boulevard’s brewmaster, Steven Pauwels , who is from Belgium, says the current fruit beer trend is “going back to what I know.”
At Boulevard Brewery, Pauwels adds more of the Oregon sour-cherry puree to the new cherry-infused brew to bolster flavor, color and complexity. The first release of the Bourbon Barrel Quadrupel, nicknamed BBQ by the staff, has been bottled . A second batch has been aging in the barrels for most of the summer.
But are fruit beers here to stay?
Pauwels and his crew say they have even more fruit-based beers in the works.
Fruit beers can range from bubbly and pink to dark and leathery. Knowing how to serve them will help bring out their fruity characteristics. Here are a few guidelines:
– The color of the beer should reflect the choice of fruit: pink for raspberry, red for cherry, for example.
– There should be a balance between the fruit and the beer; neither should dominate the other.
– Cloudiness in the beer is acceptable.
– Most fruit beers should be served cold-between 40 and 45 degrees-especially the lighter, spritzier ones.
– Beers made with real fruit and juices, like the Belgian lambics, should be gently agitated to reincorporate any fruit sediment that has settled to the bottom of the glass.
– Fruit beers should be poured into clean glassware instead of drunk from the bottle to let the fruity aromatics blossom. Serve the lighter, prettier ones in champagne flutes. Others are best poured into curvaceous tulip glasses. The sturdier, darker beers, like the Belgian and Belgian-style lambics should be poured into heavy, wide-mouth, stemmed glassware.
© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.