Before 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 Styles
Belgian 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 Beer
This 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 Beer
What 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.
As 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.