Of course, the coolest way to use fruit is on a seasonal basis. Pick-your-own farms offer berries, stone fruit and apples through the spring and fall, but farmers markets and supermarkets always have good bargains at peak season. No fruit should be discounted if you think it will make a decent beer including watermelon, citrus, grapes and tropical fruit.
Dried fruit is an outstanding choice. Cranberries, apricots, papaya and mango can be found dried. Raisins and dates are nearly pure sugar, and I have used them in mashing or steeping since their aromatics and flavor are less likely to disappear during fermentation. The rummy sweetness marries perfectly with dark Belgian, English and American ales, and even dark lagers. Check dried fruit for surface treatment with antimicrobial agents.
Another route to explore is frozen fruit, quite convenient and always available. Freezing ruptures the cell walls of the fruit, releasing the juice and eliminating the need for crushing.
Fruit purees are available from homebrew shops, are quite popular with wine and mead makers and superb for beer. These purees are fully strained and sterile, and can be added directly to your beer without worry. Apricot, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, cherry, plum, peach, raspberry and strawberry purees can be purchased. Inquire at your local homebrew shop.
Fruit juice and concentrated fruit juice are fine and ready to use. Natural juice is best as others may contain added sugar or even preservatives—read the labels carefully.
Ripe for Brewing
Though nearly any fruit can be used, and we are an experimental lot, some are much more effective than others. Often the taste of the fruit doesn’t carry over into the finished beer very well, degrades over time or simply can’t stand up to the relative overbearing flavors of malt. Cherries, raspberries, black currants, apricots, grapes, pomegranate, dates and apples always hold up quite well. Cherries (especially sour) and raspberries are particularly versatile, and even stand up to dark beers. Fruits that don’t retain their character as well would certainly benefit as a complimentary component, or used in beer designed to be served fresh. Watermelon, pears, blueberries and strawberries fit into that category. Peaches, blackberries, kiwi and elderberries are somewhere in between the two extremes.
Citrus fruits present a unique situation. Citrus juice can work, but citrus zest is usually the better option. Zest contains pure-tasting citrus oils and can be put into the kettle at the end of the boil. In this case, zest is more spice than fruit, and orange and tangerine especially add a fresh tart flavor to wheat-based, holiday spiced beer or stout. Lime or lemon is especially nice in wheat beer.
Styles and Pairings
Homebrewing is one of the most creative, personal and interpretive hobbies, but even as that maverick mentality is valued, it is overwhelmingly superseded by the desire to make a memorable beer. Here are a few of my observations on cobbling together fruit beers. Stouts and porters are great styles for cherry and raspberry, the fruit meshing well with the notes of chocolate (or actual chocolate) and playing off the roast perfectly. With cherries, add the pits along with the fruit. Dates and raisins are ideal for Belgian dubbel, old ale and malty lagers like Baltic porter. Wheat beers are gracious hosts, especially American versions, to nearly all fruit, and seem to carry subtle doses very well. Pomegranate, most berries, watermelon and citrus can add to this style, especially with neutral yeast and carefully selected hops. Amber lagers and ales and wheat beers love the company of apricot, especially with modest hop levels. Citrus and/or dates, especially in combination with flavorings like vanilla or anise, takes holiday ales to another level. Grapes, pomegranates and apples would be outstanding in beers that edge towards wine, braggot or cider-type malt beverages. Apples and slightly sweet (light crystal) and/or toasty (Munich or Vienna) malts marry harmoniously.