Recall the time you were chatting up that stunner down at the pub? You’d just put that gleam in her eyes when you foolishly offered to buy her “a beer.” Whoooosh! Boom! Bite-sized insect food! About the same result you’d get if you’d asked if she wore sexy undies. You blew it. Took months to recover your nerve, right? What you failed to appreciate is that too many women equate the word “beer” with god-awful bland, fizzy, yellow stuff. You blew it because you didn’t mystify her, plus you offered her the worst thing imaginable. Women want class, and “beer,” as we all know, has no class. Women are prone to like wine. And what beer group is closest to wine? Think! A hint: art students are forced to draw horrible still lifes of it. Another: it starts with an f. Fruit beer? Got it in one!
Do It with ClassTry this the next time you’re down at the pub on your regular stool at the bar, and Salma Hayek—yes, the Mexican-born actress of incomparable beauty—walks in. Both men and women drop their jaws. A barracuda strikes, but she unmans him with a glance. Looking about, she spots the only empty seat in the joint, which just happens to be beside you. Whoa! Turn and smile. Don’t glance down, even for a second, at her, ahem—just don’t look down! And, for heaven’s sake, ditch your half-finished pint of whatever. Slide it aside as though it were someone else’s. You must subtly baffle her and sow curiosity. Ask which is her favorite: cherries, peaches, or raspberries. Perhaps Salma replies, “Raspberries.” She’s hooked but doesn’t know it yet. She’s both intrigued and confused by your question because she expected a pick-up line. Now, gently reel her in by planting a seed of expectation. Take charge. Turn to the beertender and order a corked bottle of framboise lambic and two proper glasses. Sniff the cork, as though it were from a wine bottle. Then pour for both of you. Women love shared experiences. Offer her the first glass, but don’t blow it by gulping down half of your glass. Rather, act the connoisseur. Subtly sniff round the rim, then pronounce it an excellent vintage. Let it flow from there. See, women are attracted to men who are experts on stuff other than repairing toilets and breaking things. Play your fruit right, and you might usher out Salma Hayek on your arm. The rest is up to you.
Fruited BeerLet’s examine several constituent members that comprise a group of beers called fruit beer, or fruited beer, whichever you prefer. So far (my research continues), I’ve identified 18 styles in the group, which places it third after the bock and the wheat groups, each with 22 styles. There are several points to remember when discussing fruited beer. First, the term fruit—like cats, dogs, and horses—defines a group. We must look within to see all the species—apricot, boysenberry, cherry, et al. Second, each species has its own distinct characteristics that, when the species is used in beer, makes each beer different. Out of these differences spring individual beer styles. The Belgians are quite right to classify each beer made with a different fruit as its own style. Third, we must also include in the stylistic mix the base beer to which fruit is added. For example, gueuze, lambic, and old brune (brown) are three Belgian styles. When cherries are added to each, the result is not cherry fruit beer, but cherry gueuze, cherry lambic, and cherry old brune. Furthermore, the number of styles within the group will continue to grow as adventurous craft brewers experiment with other fruit—currants (red and black), elderberries, gooseberries and blueberries come to mind. Apples and oranges have recently been used with good results. The total number of combinations of base beers and fruit is staggering. The fruited beer group currently consists of Belgian fruited beers based on old brown ale, gueuze and lambic; North American variants of Belgian styles; fruited lager; North American fruited porter and stout, first developed by homebrewers (thank you!); fruited wheat beer; and generic North American fruit beer. Of particular interest are the Belgian substyles, North American variants, and generic North American fruited beer.
Historical BackgroundBefore we proceed, we need to ask why some brewers use fruit in beers in the first place. The answer lies in brewing’s distant past. For thousands of years, from the dawn of brewing, brewers sought a counterbalance to malt, which is sickeningly sweet—hardly the characteristic of a refreshing beverage. In seeking the magic second ingredient, brewers tried numerous items: spices, herbs, other plants, and, yes, fruit. Finally, they hit upon hops, but some continued using fruit long after this addition had outlived its original purpose.
Belgian Fruit Beer StylesBelgian fruited beer substyles cause much confusion. Indeed, most people don’t realize that there are three distinct base beers to which masticated fruit is added: old brune (brown), gueuze, and lambic. Each produces a different result. The Belgians themselves don’t distinguish among them, simply calling them by the names of the fruit in them. To add to the confusion, either Flemish or French is used on the label: frambozen/framboise (raspberry); kriek/cherrise (cherry); but only the French, peche (peach). Belgian brewers use several tricks of the trade to produce consistently excellent fruited beers. The first is the use of aged hops that have lost most of their bittering components. This solves the problem of the dreaded fruit/hop clash on the palate. Using hoppy base styles and dosing them with fruit essence leads to awful-tasting results. The second is not rushing the beer to market. Fruited beer improves with aging (a year or more), as the fruit components blend with the base. Obviously, this cannot be achieved with beers dosed at bottling and rushed to store shelves. Alcohol strength varies widely. The weakest of all is peche gueuze at 3.0 to 4.0 percent ABV. Frambozen gueuze tends to be the strongest at 5 to 7 percent ABV. The others lie between the extremes. The beer may be hazy with the color taking on a hue of the fruit, with some head tinting, too. The body should be light to medium depending upon the base. Hop bitterness should not be evident. The fruit should come through on the palate but not be overwhelming, and the finish should be long but mellow, without any intrusions.
North American Belgian-style Fruit BeerThis is a small, but elite, style. The North American brewers who go out of their way to brew delicious Belgian-style fruited beers should be praised to the heavens. They put second-rate North American fruited beers to shame. In this column, I don’t normally single anyone out for praise but I will make an exception for New Glaris Brewing of Wisconsin. Among several fruited beers they produce, their Wisconsin Belgian-style Red (cherry) is world class. Twice I have had the pleasure of judging it at the Brewing Industry International Awards competition in Burton-upon-Trent, where it has twice won gold against stiff Belgian competition. Since traditional lambic brewing is nonexistent in North America, these Belgian-style fruit beers tend to be based on brown ales. Alcohol content doesn’t reach the upper limits of the native style: 4.0 to 5.5 percent ABV. There should be a firm malt base to the body, and a nicely blended combination of fruit tartness and malt on the palate and in the finish. The fruit component may be aggressive in both the nose and the palate.
North American Generic Fruit BeerWhat you get here is a hit or miss grab bag of brands. While there are some notable examples, too often what you get is not what you thought you would. Often, there’s something there that shouldn’t be, and a lot missing. So beware. One tip-off to an inferior product is a mismatch between the color the fruit should impart to the beer and the actual color of the beer. For example, if a raspberry fruited beer is brewed properly, the fruit should impart a reddish (and frequently hazy) cast to the beer and the head, except in cases where a brown beer is used as the base. Should the raspberry beer you buy be golden-colored, odds are that the brewer used a raspberry extract flavoring to dose one of his standard lagers or golden ale at the time of bottling. Most extracts leave an unpleasant artificial cough-syrup taste on the palate.
ConclusionAs a beer judge, I wish I could declare that all fruited beers are exceptional, but the sad truth is that not all of these beers are created equal. Unfortunately, the gap between exceptional, well-made fruited beers and cheap imitations is quite wide and can never be bridged. The former are produced by caring brewers, the latter by accountants and marketers out to cash in. It is my goal never to steer readers wrong with the beers I review. I use a mix of past experience, competition results, brewery reputation, curiosity, and impulse. I shan’t waste my time and yours by reviewing merely good examples. To readers put off in the past by God-awful fruited beers, the four here are world-class examples of the brewer’s art. Some purists will argue about my choices for the two lambic-based examples, claiming they tend to be too sweet-tasting when compared with more “authentic” examples available in Belgium, but, in defence, these breweries are catering to a shift in consumer preference.
Belle-vue FramboiseABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: A lambic-based example from Interbrew, the world’s number two brewing concern: aged three years in oak barrels (and about two additional years since bottling); uniformly hazy, as to be expected, with an unusual warm color cast of orangey-pink. Throws a big foamy head of long duration that laces the glass to the base; clean nose; medium bodied. Sit and savor the beautiful raspberry notes on the nose, with no hop intrusion. Carbonation and conditioning are excellent, with fine bubbles on the tongue; there is no hop intrusion on the palate, which is as it should be with fruited beers. Some lambic sourness underlies the smooth malt and tart fruit base; long, fine finish, with the raspberry carrying right through to the end. Perfect fruit-malt balance from start to finish; refreshing, delicious, and faultless.
New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red-styleABV: 5.1
Tasting Notes: Don’t die before you try this world-class cherry fruit-beer because you will miss out on one of life’s pleasures. Gorgeous red-colored with slight haze; pink-tinged head of long duration that laces to the bottom. Medium-bodied; stunning cherry notes leap out of the glass; excellent carbonation and conditioning; tartness from the cherries dominates without being overwhelming; well-balanced. Beautiful transition on the palate from initial sweetness, as it falls off, to fruity tartness; flawless. Heads above a kir-champagne; a remarkable example of the brewer’s craft.
Unibroue Quelque ChoseABV: 8
Tasting Notes: This is the Giselle Bundschen—the Brazilian supermodel—of fruited beers: magnificent body and mind-bending curves in the right places. Reddish-cast, unfiltered and somewhat hazy; the minuscule head quickly recedes to the glass’s inner surface. The body is laden with fruit fullness, but is not heavy, excellent; beckoning cherry notes explode out of the glass. Unlike other fruited beers (but like some enormous barleywines), this one is nearly still, with slight carbonation; a whole bushel of fruit sourness and tartness that is perfectly balanced by the malt so nothing gets out of hand. Alcohol warmth quite evident—this is a big beer, but one where all components work together quite well.
Lindemans CassisABV: 4
Tasting Notes: I’ve often wondered why this excellent beer has received virtually no press, and I’ve been awaiting this opportunity to change that. Black currants are the fruit used in this lovely lambic-based beer. Ruby red and very clear; throws a pink-tinged huge head; clean nose, light-to-medium bodied. Interesting, distinctive, uncommon nose reminiscent of cranberries. Excellent, fine carbonation and conditioning; sweet-tart-sugary finish counterbalances its lambic base. Sharp fruit on the palate, with a long-tailed finish; the acidity of the berries is again evocative of cranberries; refreshing on the palate; really gets the salivary glands working overtime! If you’re looking for something unique, put your money down on a few bottles of this.
Rob Haiber categorically denies the rumors he has bookmarked every Salma Hayek website, and that he has founded “Men Without Frontiers,” a society dedicated to the appreciation of women, no matter where in the world they live.