Fruit and Spice Beers

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Written by Tom Becham for Professorgoodales.net

Courtesy beersmith.com
Let’s face it.  Amongst beer geeks, beers containing fruit and/or spices tend to have a poor reputation.  Fruit beers are routinely called “girlfriend beer” (that’s actually the most POLITE term I can find for them), while spiced beers are usually written off as gimmicks and/or seasonal aberrations.

But the truth is that both fruits and spices have a long history of being used as brewing ingredients.  The German Reinheitsgebot (the document from 1516 Germany which prohibited the use of any ingredients in beer other than malt, hops, water and yeast) aside, many very ancient brewing traditions have had no restrictions on ingredients.

In fact, I would venture to say that fruit has been used in beer for nearly as long as beer has existed.  Brewing is traditionally a way to preserve foodstuffs that would otherwise spoil without the life-extending effects of alcohol upon them.  Putting such things in beer preserves their nutrients without spoilage.

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Dogfish Head currently makes a beer called Midas Touch, based on samples from a potsherd found in Asia Minor from several thousand years ago.  The samples found muscat grapes to be one of the beer’s ingredients.  Saffron was also found to be in that ancient brew.

So clearly spices also have a long history in beer brewing.  In fact, prior to the use of hops, spices were the primary bittering and preservation agents.  In Britain, a mix of spices called “gruit” was routinely used in beer, and frequently contained wormwood, the oil of which can be quite hallucinogenic.

So relegating fruit or spice beers to the pejorative territory of “girlfriend beers” is not only sexist and stupid, it is also inaccurate.  However, given that so many brewers produce poor quality wheat ales with cloyingly sweet and fruity tastes, or ersatz-lambics using syrupy-sweet fruit extracts rather than real fruit, or spiced holiday ales with no subtlety or balance… it’s easy to see why so many beer geeks can believe the worst about fruit and spice beers.

Subsequently, I am providing my impressions of seven such beers I’ve recently sampled, both good and bad.

Sam Adams makes two of the beers, and rather similar ones at that.

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The first is their Cherry Chocolate Bock.  Malt and cherry are obvious on the nose. This has a strong cherry flavor up front while colder.  When it warms, the cherry becomes a fainter trail on the front of the palate, with baking chocolate and some slight roasty flavor sliding down the back of the throat.   Well balanced, considering, and SA did a fine job of keeping it from being sickly-sweet.  Still, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a dessert beer.

The second is a new release from Sam Adams called The Vixen.  This is billed as a doppelbock, flavored with cocoa nibs, cinnamon and chiles.  The nose is all malt and cinnamon, while the flavor is like Mexican chocolate in beer form, with the cocoa and cinnamon being obvious, and just a tiny punch of chile on the finish.  If you’ve never tasted Mexican chocolate, do yourself a favor and have some now.  I’ll wait.  What did you think?  Yummy, huh?  Anyway, The Vixen is a wonderful concoction, but also purely a dessert beer. Especially since it’s strong enough that one is likely to knock you on your backside.

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Magic Hat is a famous eastern seaboard brewery, but we seldom get their products on the west coast.  Their #9 has recently become available.  It is a pale ale with apricot and is a less hoppy version of a pale, with apricot obvious on the nose.  There is also some butterscotch diacetyl that can be smelled, which carries through as a buttery quality on the palate. That buttery quality is considered a flaw in many beer styles, but doesn’t seem so in this case. The apricot is also there, strong, but not overwhelming.  #9 has fruit in it, yes, but at every moment it is first and foremost a beer.  This is a classic example of a successful fruit beer.

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The Bruery’s Autumn Maple is made with yams and molasses.  Frankly, this beer is preferred, in my home, to any pumpkin ales during the fall season. It, too, is first and foremost a beer, but the yam flavor comes across very strongly, and the molasses somewhat less so.  It is a warmer and very strong.  It pairs ideally with a turkey dinner, and is a masterful use of unusual ingredients.  The Bruery did a great job of balancing the sweeter tastes on this one.

Rogue’s Chipotle Ale is an example of a growing category: chile beer.  Unfortunately, most chile beers range in categories from merely grotesque, to completely heinous.  I once tasted a beer at a festival that was a habanero pilsner, proving the old adage that just because you CAN do a thing, does not mean you SHOULD do that thing.  Fortunately, Rogue managed to keep this in the acceptable range.  The chipotle is a smoked pepper, so rather than imparting a bunch of heat to the pale ale base, Rogue’s Chipotle Ale comes off as a somewhat ashy-accented smoked beer.  Indeed, smoked malts are also used.  So, it is a somewhat vegetal-tasting smoked pale ale.  It is a decent beer, but not worth drinking on its own.  I feel it would really come alive paired with some spicy barbecue, like Louisiana hot links or spicy tri-tip.

The best fruit beer I recently sampled is Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek.  This is a GENUINE Belgian lambic, using real cherries, without the sourness being mixed away with syrupy concoctions.  The nose of this Oude Kriek is cider vinegar and cherries, and the palate is cherries up front with a very long, uncompromisingly sour finish.  Lindeman’s WISHES their lambics tasted like this one!

Unfortunately, I also have a clunker to review.  Stone Brewing has recently done a number of collaboration brews with notable breweries around the United States.  One such collaboration was with Elysian and The Bruery.  Now, I regard Stone as a one-trick pony (aggressively hop-accented beers). Granted, Stone does that one trick exceedingly well, and has grown exponentially with it.  I was hoping, however, that The Bruery could help bring out some interesting qualities in this collaboration. (I know nothing of Elysian’s products, so have no opinion of them.)  Sadly, I was disappointed.  This collaboration is called Citrueille Celeste de Citracado.  It was made with pumpkin, yams, toasted fenugreek, lemon verbena and birch bark.  I expected a rich almost-sweetness from the pumpkin, yam and birch bark, with the verbena and fenugreek livening and brightening the flavor profile.  Unfortunately, all I got on the nose and palate was hops and spice.  It is like chewing a mouthful of exotic lawn clippings. This beer is a misbegotten mess, as even the hops have no particular or obvious purpose, other than to apparently be tossed cavalierly into the brew kettle.  I’m sure that many of Stone’s cult-like following will still claim to love it, however.  Stone could bottle liquefied pig feces under their own label, and their die-hard fans would still review it favorably on multiple websites.

All in all, I recommend that even the most hardened, cynical beer geek give fruit beers and spiced beers another chance.  Many of them are not done well, true, and it may take much sampling to find some good ones.  But it is well worth it when you do.

Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.net.