I swear I wasn’t looking to pick a fight. I was at the Canoe Brewpub on the waterfront in Victoria, British Columbia, and started chatting with the guy next to me. It was pleasant enough till I brought up the subject of fruit beers.
“Worthless horrors,” my new friend said firmly, with the grin and nod of anticipatory agreement.
“Well, there are plenty of those,” I began, “but what about beers like the New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red? It’s rich, the cherry flavor is deep, it’s like eating a slice of really good pie.”
“No, fuck ’em,” he said, his tone harder.
Avoiding an ugly confrontation, I backed down, smiled, and we continued to drink our beers (a nice bitter beer for me), and talked about less contentious subjects.
But our brief exchange brought up a question that’s bedeviled craft beer drinkers for decades: Are fruit beers just gimmicks? (We’re going to avoid the whole pumpkin beer question for now. That’s for another time and column.)
If you can believe it, back in the 1980s fruit beers were actually quite sought after. Brilliant Belgian brews opened our eyes to an incredible range of flavors and showed us what was possible. There were funky, piercingly tart lambics, like Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait—the thought of which still makes me shudder with frightened anticipation. It had a face-splitting aroma of sour cherries and, well, outhouse that was irresistible once you got over your fears and took a sip. Liefmans Frambozenbier blended a rich raspberry aroma with a tangy woodiness and aged depth. Rodenbach Alexander married a boldly winey base of two-year-old wood-aged beer with young ale that had been steeped with cherries: a mix of aged depth and youthful vigor.
These were truly classics. They were complex, some were challenging and some were beautifully approachable. Why were they so good? They used real fruit; they were aged in wood; and they were made with traditional methods.
They also weren’t cheap, but we savored every pricey drop. We told our friends about them, we shared them, we aged them. Some of us tried to brew them at home. I know I did; a tart strawberry ale that was a disaster (exploding bottles in my first apartment with my wife), and a peach ale that was quite nice.
American craft brewers also tried making them and some of them were marvelous. The aforementioned New Glarus in Wisconsin created a pair of fruit beers—Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart—that I’d put up against any Belgian classic. The Selin’s Grove brewpub in central Pennsylvania developed (and still makes) a Framboise that used so many fresh raspberries they literally lost money on every glass they sold. The beer was so good for their reputation, they chalked up the loss to promotional expense.
But some of the fruit beers weren’t marvelous. There was a huge surge of raspberry beers in the mid-’90s, so many that for a while the Great American Beer Festival had a separate judging category for them. There were a few good ones, flavored with whole fruit or pure pulp concentrate, but most were more like fruit-flavored, boozy soda pop.
Spanish Peaks Brewing, in Bozeman, Montana, may have been the epitome of the trend. They had a Raspberry Ale that was very popular. They even built a much larger brewery to supply the demand. Then, unfortunately, came 1997, the year craft brewing stalled and raspberry beers were one of the first to go.
The fruit beers died down for a while, but they’re back and are paired up with craft beer powerhouse: IPA. Fruit IPAs—mango, grapefruit, passionfruit, pineapple—are hotter than a habanero; actually, there are habanero IPAs, too.
The first one I remember was Dogfish Head Aprihop, an IPA brewed with dried apricots, and it was shockingly good, a beautiful blend of hop and fruit flavor. Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin IPA wasn’t the first, but it is now the standard for many drinkers: bright, buzzy fruit paired with the citrus character of the hops.
Things have come full circle. The hottest fruit beers now are ones like De Garde’s Violet de Mer, which is brewed in Tillamook, Oregon, with heaping baskets of fresh local black and red raspberries, and is rich with the berry’s tart taste.
Belgium has returned to the fray as well. Rodenbach’s new Fruitage is made with a full 9 percent fruit juice—more than some “fruit drinks.” That stat is proudly proclaimed on its can. Yes, a can, and you should pour it out into a glass just to see the beautifully magenta color and get the beer’s full aroma.
But I also like a big cold can of Stiegl Radler Grapefruit, from Austria. A “Radler” is a blend of beer and a soft drink (usually lemon-lime or cola soda); in this case, it’s actual grapefruit juice and the beer is cloudy with it. And when I’m thirsty, and want to really tear into a drink, it’s a great glassful.
So, yes, I disagree with my new drinking buddy. Fruit beers aren’t all worthless horrors. Some are rich, delicious creations that are just as “craft” as your double IPA or imperial stout. Some are authentically light and refreshing. Like anything else, you have to try them yourself. Don’t let anyone else make that decision for you.