With homebrewing comes the epiphany that nearly anything can be included in a beer recipe, and the familiarity with fruit beers over the past 20 years has made those a favorite among us. But, blending malt, hops and fruit is best negotiated with care and forethought. Even so, the possibilities are numerous, since fresh fruit is often seasonal, cheap or even free, and frozen fruit and purees are always available. Some fruit seems destined for beer, others, not so much. We also have the luxury of wide-eyed experimentation that a small brewery might not. The physical nature and fermentability of fruit warrants some consideration though, as does the flavor contribution, and the way it meshes and lifts the base beer. Also, fruit sugar is complex and different in composition from malt sugars, honey or simple sugars. Brewing with fruit is a delicate trip indeed, but one worth exploring.

Handling Fruit

Much like varietal honey, aroma is much of the charm of using fruit in brewing, and it is best to add it when primary fermentation is finished or waning. Those wonderful, estery aromatics are flighty and fickle, and will be scrubbed away by CO2 during vigorous fermentation. I use a bucket for fermentation with lots of headspace and add the fruit at the end of primary. Crush larger fruits to allow the flavor and sugars to seep into the fermenting beer. This will kick start another fermentation. (Note: Suspending the fruit in a mesh bag will minimize pulpy sediment.) When this has run its course, rack to a carboy, being very patient with this secondary fermentation since the fruit sugars may ferment lazily. This is especially important if your beer is destined for bottles and the possibility of bottle bombs. If you fear contamination, pasteurize the fruit by heating to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes (potential pectin formation), or use campden tablets to sanitize the fruit. Fully fermented beer is less likely to become contaminated than unfermented wort, but some rogue organisms are still at home under those conditions.

Fruit contains pectin, which can cause a slight turbidity, similar to chill or starch haze that is amplified with heat. You can avoid this with pectinase, an enzyme available at any homebrew shop. A little haze though, especially in a wheat-based brew, stout or porter, may not matter. If you want your beer crystal clear, pectinase might be the answer.

The amount of fruit needed to enhance beer is enormously variable, so consider a pilot test gallon first. Consider the effect that you want, subtle, average or forceful. This is entirely a trial-and-error endeavor and depends as much on the fruit as the beer style. It might be wise to make a base 5-gallon batch and ferment a gallon of that on the side with a measured amount of fruit to gauge the dosage.

Picking Fruit

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.