Fruit beers divide us, on whether they’re legitimate or a gimmick. One drinker’s gorgeous classic is another person’s candy in a glass. But I don’t think the divide is real.
I had an argument—no, I had a discussion—with a guy about fruit beers when I was in British Columbia for the Victoria Whisky Festival in January. I spent most of the daylight hours walking around, seeing the city and drinking beers in the excellent bars and breweries. You have to stay hydrated, after all. On day two, I dropped my hook at Canoe, a brewpub right on the waterfront, and proceeded to dip my beak in the ESB. Then I started chatting with the guy next to me about whisky.
Eventually the conversation came around to beer, and right off the bat, he said he didn’t like “all these fruit beers, the mango IPAs and such.” I responded that I was not generally a fan, even though I really love mangoes. But, I offered, he would have to admit that some of the classic Belgians and beers like the New Glarus Raspberry Tart were good. He had a smoking hot response that I’ll condense and sanitize to, “No.”
I smiled, and we clinked glasses, and spoke no more about it. But I was thinking about it as I walked up the hill, off to the next beer, and I thought about it most of the flight home. I’ve been drinking fruit beers for over 30 years, having started with the Belgian classics, like Liefmans Frambozenbier, Boon Kriek and Hanssens. Then after we struggled through the Great Raspberry Deluge in the mid-’90s (if the definitive history of The Shakeout ever gets written, and we agree on whether it even happened—it did—I think raspberry beers will finally get the blame they deserve), we had the “Are Pumpkin Beers Fruit or Spice Beers?” debate.
Now it’s fruit IPAs, where fruits are paired with new hop strains to juice up beer flavor, while the radler has finally slouched its fizzy way into the American market. Fruit beers are assaulting a whole new generation of palates, which led me to wonder whether it’s possible to have an objective opinion on fruit beers.
As I said to our editor when I ran this idea by him, there are fruits that we old buffers have considered classic in beer: cherry, raspberry, peach and apple. Of those, cherry and raspberry were the prime, the ur-fruits. Why? Because they were the ones we’d had first, the only ones there were—and because Michael Jackson liked them, if we’re being honest. Others came later: banana, strawberry, plum, apricot, and they may have been good, but we didn’t take them seriously.
Younger drinkers did. Because they were less experienced or because they were less judgmental? I thought it was experience until one hot night in Alberta (honestly, it was) when I was shamed into drinking a pint of Stiegl Grapefruit Radler. Damn me if I didn’t like it, and double damn me if I haven’t had it from the can since and still liked it. But I feel like I’m letting down my team when I have one.
See, there was another argument from the old days of beer geekery, the almost philosophical argument over whether light lagers were objectively good, and whether it was possible to say without prejudice that beers, whole classes of beers, were simply not good enough to be considered for worth. We’d trot out history, quality measures, authenticity and custom, even price. The argument against it boiled down to one thing: “If you like it, it’s a good beer.” That drove us mad back in the day because we knew that those beers were bad beers. Even though some of us still drank Bud Heavy, and Genny Cream, and Yuengling.
Fruit beers may just be the ultimate test of that theory. After all, I will defend my enjoyment of the Stiegl Radler, a light lager cut about half-and-half with grapefruit soda pop. Here: It’s a session beer; the flavor is like real juice (more so than some fruited IPAs I’ve had); it’s clean and not cloying. Most of all, it’s refreshing and I like it.
But is it a good beer? Well, why not? I like it, it’s made with Teutonic care in a central European lager brewery, it’s the same every time, and at the right time it’s simply killer refreshing. Do we need more?
There comes a time when we have to walk away from overwrought arguments and come down on the side of personal preference … and accept that fruit beers are perfectly fine. And also accept that they are, as my friend in Victoria said, “worthless horrors.” It depends on you. And me. So drink up, your choice. Make it a good one.
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson.