Cucumber Beers: Stars of the Summer?
Saraveza is a Portland beer geek bar dolled up as a Midwestern blue-collar dive adorned with Old Style and Schlitz breweriana and Packers paraphernalia galore. Yet perched in front of me is a Budweiser branded chalice with a cucumber slice garnish. Virtually zero beer halls in Wisconsin would deign to serve a beer with a veggie on the rim, but it flies in Oregon, where lumberjacks have given way to “lumbersexuals” and at least four breweries across the state, to wit, have brewed beers with cucumbers. The particular one in question is Oakshire’s Sun Made Cucumber Berliner Weisse made in Eugene. It’s as light, tart and refreshing as expected, and the kiss of cuke smacks of spa water or a cosmetic face mask.
Yes, there are oddball adjuncts appearing in beers today—Stilton cheese culture and beard cultures, civet poop coffee and elephant poop coffee, bull testicles and dung-smoked whale testicles—but as much as cucumbers seem weird to throw in a beer, once shock wears off, deft and delicious beer remains.
I’m not sure which is more astonishing: that there are several beers made with this vegetable or the fact that cucumbers aren’t veggies at all. They are, botanically speaking, a gourd fruit, making them closer to watermelon than zucchini. Just don’t tell that to the salad bar or pickle jar. Speaking of which, the key to these beers is probably keeping said beers from tasting like pickle juice. Then again, one such Oregon beer is the dry-pickled Dill Dose, a collaboration between Portland’s Coalition Brewing and Moon Brine Pickles designed to mimic a “pickle back” for all your whiskey or cheeseburger needs.
Breweries that make them well find that they’re insanely popular. In 2012, inspired by the cooling cucumber water that’s a staple of hot and humid Midwestern days, brewers at Flat 12 Bierwerks in Indianapolis added cucumbers from nearby Indy Acres Farm to its Kölsch. Such a hit with customers was this beer that Flat 12 no longer makes an un-cuked Kölsch. “It couldn’t compete at all with Cucumber Kölsch,” says Flat 12’s Sean Manahan. Every late spring now, the brewery ramps up production to 200 barrels. It’s an ideal complement to equally cool sushi or fruit salad.
Speaking of light and refreshing cucumber beers, Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Will Meyers recalled one coming across the judges’ table at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) last year. Beers are judged blindly and sessions are shadowy. Meyers spoke of a debate at the table while judging Specialty Beer, which must feature flavor contribution and fermentables from an unusual sugar source other than barley malt and the like. “It was a delicious beer. We are required to interpret the category definitions of each beer and make sure they belong.”
Examples of specialty ingredients that belong include maple syrup or sweet potatoes. Nut beers, Meyers mentioned, are always entered but always cause disputes. Do nuts contain fermentables? Are cucumbers’ sugars accessible to brewers yeast? “It had medal-winning potential. The base beer was extremely well-made. If it had been in the Field Beer category, it would’ve easily medaled there.”
Irrefutably, three cucumber beers have medaled in recent years. Beginning in 2012, Cigar City Brewing of Tampa, Florida, took bronze for Cucumber Saison in the Field Beer category. Sidenote: Cigar City additionally has becucumbered a lager and IPA. When Tonya Cornett, the R&D brewmaster at 10 Barrel in Bend, Oregon, tasted said saison, she was inspired to make Cucumber Crush, using her back-to-back medal-winning Berliner Weisse as the base; the following year that’s the beer that garnered gold both at GABF and the World Beer Cup. In 2013, Trinity Brewing from Colorado Springs, Colorado, earned its first cucumber-laced GABF hardware for Elektrick Cukumbuhh. As Trinity’s Jason Yester puts it, “We’re a saison brewery (and) we use a lot of different raw materials.” One of those hundred-plus flavoring agents is English cucumber—over 700 pounds, organic, Colorado-grown and hand-peeled. When Trinity brewed it for the first time on its four-barrel system, it sold out at the pub in three days.
The saison receives lemon zest, grains of paradise and Brettanomyces, which ends up making Elektrick Cukumbuhh cellar-worthy, but it’s the fresh fruit that limits its availability. “The whole goal of the project was to create a melon sweetness,” says Yester. “We only have a (small) window we can brew this beer.” Trinity has only submitted it to GABF twice. It won a medal each time.
“People either love or hate cucumbers,” Yester says. “If people don’t like cucumbers, I ask if they like honeydew. Once I get their mind into that thinking and I talk them into a sample, nine out of 10 people who taste it really love it.”
Overall, cucumbers act as a versatile adjunct in myriad beer styles. The fourth Oregon-brewed rendition is El Guapo, a blond ale with not just cucumber but also lime and habanero from Flat Tail Brewing in Corvallis. The light base allows the cool cuke and the hot habanero to duke it out. Cross-country in Wolcott, Connecticut, Shebeen Brewing makes Cucumber Wasabi built on a Japanese-style rice beer.
So, yeah, maybe cucumber beers do end up being a bit weird. But maybe it’s the fruit that’s the least-bizarre aspect. The Oakshire Sun Made Berliner Weisses are traditionally kettle-soured, but the Lactobacillus in this beer came from brewer Matt Van Wyk pitching unpasteurized yogurt. He then used dry ice to cool the wort and purge oxygen. But it’s the cucumbers we focus on.
“I don’t think (cucumber beers) will ever take the market by storm as far as ‘move over IPA,’ ” says Yester. However, as Cornett adds, “It’s an interesting ingredient that everyone is playing with at the moment. They may very well be the stars of the summer.”
Brian Yaeger is the author of Oregon Breweries and Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.