From bogs in the capes of Massachusetts, to similarly saturated settings in New Jersey, Oregon and Wisconsin, an understated holiday staple—more of a side-dish, really—is expanding its presence from the provinces of juices, sauces and stuffings to a position that could usurp the pumpkin’s vice grip on seasonal beer.
Tart, tannic and relatively low in both pulp and sugars, cranberries present myriad challenges to brewers when compared to other fruit. However, those that learn to harness cranberries as a brewing ingredient hold a possible answer to the criticisms of saccharinity and ironic lack of seasonality associated with pumpkin beer.
“Cranberries are a delicate fruit,” said Kevin Martin, the lead blender for Cascade Brewing in Portland, Oregon. “People really have to be willing to put in the time, the effort and the labor to work with them.”
Cisco Brewers, which is located on Nantucket near the heart of Massachusetts’ cranberry country—the place where the fruit is said to have originated—begins tackling the challenge by first cooking its yearly allotment of the local cranberry harvest.
“It almost makes a cranberry sauce, it’s like an intense cranberry concentrate,” said Peter Burke, the national sales director at Cisco.
The concentrate then joins a wheat ale base inoculated with Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria, and is aged for a year in Chardonnay barrels from the brewery’s sister winery next door. The beer, Cranberry Woods, is complete just in time for the following year’s September-October cranberry harvest.
“We can release it while people have cranberries fresh on their minds, while the bogs are active and while there’s cranberry festivals, it just works out,” Burke said.
While Cisco’s Cranberry Woods sour is “über tart” and shocks the taste buds at first according to Burke, the dramatic dryness segues into a smoother palate of mild oak and fresh cranberry when allowed to breathe. “It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It will take two sips, at the very least, to experience it,” Burke said.
New Glarus Brewing of Wisconsin used to produce a similarly dry style of cranberry beer called Cran-bic, but it was more for aficionados than the local consumer base.
“Most Wisconsinites tend to gravitate toward things that are sweeter and fruitier,” said Randy Thiel, the director of quality control at New Glarus and a native of Wisconsin. “Cran-bic is more challenging … it’s more funk-forward and tannic-forward than it is fruit-forward.”
In 2012 a “blistering summer” decimated local cherry crops and threw off New Glarus’ production of its cherry-spiked Wisconsin Belgian Red. To fill that gap, Thiel said the brewery looked to Wisconsin’s abundance of cranberries—the state produces more cranberries than anywhere else in the United States, harvesting over 5 million barrels in 2015 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—to construct another iteration of a fruit-forward sour.
Since cranberries have thick skins, and therefore a hefty amount of tannins, they can impart a dryness unfavorable to consumers who favor easier drinking beers. Therefore, New Glarus added local apples and cherries for sweetness and balance, thus developing its new sour fruit beer: Serendipity.
‘We make as much as we can sell,” said Thiel. “Compared to other beers we make, it’s not a huge volume, but we’re sending shipments of that beer out every week.”
Cascade Brewing of Oregon—which ranks fourth in states for cranberry production—also makes its cranberry sour with a fruit-forward palate in mind. Like Cisco, Cascade uses heat to unlock the latent flavors and aromas of cranberries into a cranberry sauce-like concentrate, but freezes the fruit first to “open some of the cell structures and the things that might otherwise bind up flavors and aromas,” Martin said. It also uses a wheat ale base.
While all of the brewers mentioned in this article barrel-age their cranberry beers, only New Glarus and Cisco use both Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus to develop tartness.
Cascade eschews purposeful inoculation of Brettanomyces when creating its take on the style because the yeast can overwhelm cranberries’ delicate flavor and eat up desired residual sugars.
“We like a nice long extended contact either in barrel or tank, and that helps us get a long, rich extension on a fruit that would otherwise be difficult to extract,” Martin said.
While all of these beers have a bracing tartness that keeps them refreshing year-round, the evocative spirit of apple and cranberry in New Glarus’ Serendipity, the subtle, mulling spice-like cinnamon and orange additions to Cascade’s cranberry ale, and the felicitous proximity of Cisco and Cascade’s releases to both the holiday and cranberry harvest season help drive sales spikes late in the year.
“I hate to state the obvious, but it goes well with turkey,” said Martin of Cascade’s cranberry sour.
The brewer’s other suggested pairings: apple pie, pork tenderloin, salad with candied nuts, and dishes spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg or clove.