Fruit (not Fruity) Flavors
Fruit beers can be hard to make because of the array of “fruit” flavors that are added along with that obvious “fruity” flavor. Josh Weikert offers suggestions for building recipes to account for these other fruit flavors.
WE ALL KNOW WHAT fruit tastes like. I mean, if you add raspberries to a wheat beer to make a raspberry wheat, then you’re adding the flavor of raspberries. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, no. This kind of thinking (“Hey, let’s add grapefruit to this and make it a fruit beer!”) used to be prevalent in both commercial brewing and homebrewing.
Well, I have some good news and some bad news: The good news is that it’s not common anymore, which has resulted in better fruit beers, but the bad news is that brewers are compelled to reckon with the reality that fruit beers can be devilishly hard to make because of the complex array of “fruit” flavors that are added along with that obvious “fruity” flavor.
I hate to end on a “bad news” note, though, so here’s some more good news: as long as we’re aware of what we’re adding and building recipes to account for these other fruit flavors, there’s no reason we can’t be a part of what has been a very, very exciting recent surge of outstanding fruit beer!
Unsurprisingly, since we’re talking about recipe formulation, our goal is balance. You can add almost anything to beer and make a great beer out of it (though that Kimchi Cal Common I had two years ago might be a non-starter), and as we work through the flavors of fruit, we’ll also address methods to get the fruity flavors we want while accounting and adjusting for what comes along with it.
It may surprise some to think of their fruit as “bitter.” One reason is that a major attraction of a lot of fruits is their overall flavor, which usually includes a healthy dose of “sweet” along with the other flavors. As brewers, though, we get rid of that sweetness (by converting it into alcohol—more on that later), and as a result, we are left with something that adds a fruity character but can also impart bitterness along with it.
Bitterness has multiple root causes, biologically and molecularly speaking, and several varieties of fruit add detectable bitterness to your beer. Citrus fruits—most notably grapefruit—are prime offenders here, thanks to the presence of a compound called naringin. Although most-often associated with grapefruit, it’s common in most citrus fruits, and its name derives from the same Sanskrit word from which the orange gets its name.
We also find bitterness in apples and pears, thanks to organic compounds that add both bitterness and astringency. While we’re on the topic of astringency, let me point out that it isn’t only bitterness that we need to account for: it’s the impression of bitterness. Many fruits (thanks to a variety of tannins in their skins or in the fruit itself) increase the degree of drying, puckering, tightening astringency that the end users of your beer will detect. What they’re feeling is astringency, and while they’re incorrectly describing it (in most cases) as bitterness, the distinction is immaterial from our perspective. Astringency will enhance the impression of bitterness, and as a result, we need to account for it even if we’re not actually adding a traditionally “bitter” fruit.
Recipe adjustment here is fairly simple: reduce IBU levels from hops. Just how much depends on what you’re brewing and what else might be present in the beer to help balance it. One reason wheat beers are common targets for fruiting is that they tend to be light in flavor and allow fruity flavors to shine through. But another reason is that they tend to be bready and lightly bittered, which leaves room in the recipe and on the palate to absorb some fruit bitterness.
If we’re fruiting an IPA, on the other hand, we need to consciously reduce the IBU level to account for added fruit bitterness and/ or astringency. Instead of 90 IBUS in your Grapefruit Double IPA, consider halving the total and letting the fruit take up an appropriate amount of bittering slack!
The addition of unfermentable sugars (either through an increase in crystal malts or direct addition of lactose, for example) can also balance added bitterness and “replace” some of the lost pre-fermentation sweetness in the fruit.
And if clarity isn’t high on your list of priorities, you might also consider a flaked grain addition to smooth out the mouthfeel.
Sweet (and Hot) Fruit
In addition to adding bitterness, fruit can also add sweetness (or, again, simply the impression of it). While it’s true that most of the sugars we add from fruit are simply fermented off, that does not mean that we’re not also adding sweetness to the beer. After all, those sugars aren’t destroyed; they’re converted into a variety of things, one of which is alcohol, which is sweet as well as warm.
Before we even reach that point, though, we need to account for the creative and annoying genius of the human brain. Our perceptions of the world are not processed “cleanly”; they’re interpreted by our brains, which are also constantly looking for patterns to enable us to predict the future and make decisions in ways that allow us to survive long enough to reproduce. You have to love the power of evolution.
One side effect of this is that when we are presented with a fruit flavor or aroma—even if that multifaceted flavor has been broken apart by our fermentation skills—we might perceive an element of sweetness even if it no longer exists. The result, for us, is that fruit flavors (whether from esters or, as it is here, from actual fruit) might trick drinkers into thinking a beer is sweeter than it is. This is especially true in beers that feature fruits that impart relatively little bitterness, astringency, or acidity: think apricots, mangoes, strawberries, and the like. In these cases, the impression of sweetness might
It isn’t only bitterness that we need to account for: it’s the impression of bitterness. Many fruits (thanks to a variety of tannins) increase the degree of drying, tightening astringency that drinkers will detect. What they’re feeling is astringency, and while they’re incorrectly describing it (in most cases) as bitterness, the distinction is immaterial.
needs to be balanced—either by bitterness or acidity—even though they add no actual unfermentable sugars to your beer.
Now, back to the sweet side effect of all that fermentation. Alcohol tastes sweet, as anyone who’s ever had a syrupy, viscous wee heavy or barleywine can attest. When we add fruit, we’re also adding fermentable sugar. Exactly how much can be determined by weight, since we know the relative sugar content of most fruits, and many products (fruit purees made specifically for brewers or winemakers) will actually list the added gravity points on the product itself! Factor this into your gravity calculations when designing your recipes. Failing to do so can make a beer that is overly sweet, through the simple addition to ethanol.
It can also, of course, make a beer that is painfully hot. There are few sins in brewing that are less forgivable than a beer that is overly hot and alcoholic. Sure, there are the occasional exceptions, and there’s no doubt that some beer drinkers want to feel a bit of heat in some styles, but even there we’re talking about warm rather than hot. At a certain alcohol level, even a careful brewer who is conscientious about temperature control and yeast pitching rate and health will reach an ABV that forces his/her yeast to work in a toxic environment, and once that happens those well-mannered yeast cells will start throwing off fusel alcohols. I know this from personal experience: What was probably a well-intentioned cherry-chocolate porter turned into something like bad dessert Schnapps because the brewer who handed it to me didn’t account for the impressive sugar content of the cherry pie filling he added to the beer’s recipe. That thing must have clocked in at 14 percent ABV.
Recipe adjustment here is fairly simple. Sugar is sugar. Make sure you’re accounting for all of it! All fruits contain at least some sugars, and others contain quite a lot (either in their pure form or as a processed product, as Mr. Cherry Pie Filing found out), and it’s going to be near 100 percent fermentable.
As for that impression of sweetness caused by the fruit flavor itself, simply take care to evaluate your recipe in the context of its final impression on the palate. A few additional IBUS may be necessary, and while you may need to wait and see and adjust future recipes based on the organoleptic analysis of yourself and those who drink/ evaluate your beer, we can sometimes get ahead of the curve even in the first attempt if we’re crafting a beer that is prone to sweet-
ness as a fault: maybe increase the bittering addition on that Mango Saison!
Incidental Sour Beer
We should also keep in mind that by adding fruit to our beer, we’re also often adding acid. Most fruits are more acidic than most beers, which means that the acidity is likely going to be noticeable, and it isn’t going away. In terms of brewing fruits, there are obviously grapefruits and oranges, which add a significant dose of citric acid. But let’s not forget about gems such as cranberries and pomegranates, which are actually more acidic than those citrus fruits. (Also, fun fact about pomegranate: it adds a specific tannin that, post-fermentation, causes near-instantaneous headaches. Found that one out the hard way.) This is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it means that you can use fruit to add sufficient acid to create mock-soured beers without the challenges or risks we associate with bacterial approaches. It is more than possible to reach levels of actual and/or perceived sourness by adding fruit to create beer that is on par with traditionally soured beers. Or maybe you just want the tartness and puckering that sour cherries can provide, especially as a way to counterbalance a very sweet recipe.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t especially want an especially acidic beer, and/or your recipe isn’t balancing it sufficiently. In that case, you have two options. First, you can select fruits that have a higher ph level to begin with. There’s no shortage of data to guide you if you’re using fresh/frozen fruit, but I would definitely caution you to take a look at any ingredients that might be added to canned or processed fruit: it isn’t uncommon to have acids added to them, which is usually moot because of the high sugar content, but (of course) we’re going to be doing away with the sugars!
A second option is to amend your recipe to increase its perceived sweetness and decrease its astringency to reduce the impression of puckering or tart mouthfeel or flavor.
We can wrap up by discussing two significant “finishing” issues when brewing with fruit. One issue is appearance: fruit can make a beer cloudy. The other issue is conditioning: fruit can make a beer explode.
Lots of brewing fruits (particularly those noted earlier that are relatively high in bitterness) contain high levels of pectin, a naturally occurring compound in fruit that is found in cell walls. Pectin, when broken free of its shackles, adds haze to beer, so when we’re adding fruit we’re also inviting an appearance problem. Obviously, if you’re brewing a beer where haze isn’t an issue (Hefeweizen, New England–style IPA), you can skip this concern completely.
For those who want a crystal-clear beer, though, you’ll need to treat your fruit beers to brighten them up. One mechanical solution is to simply filter your beer when finished, but that will have flavor impacts that you’ll then need to account for as well! You can also use traditional brewing finings to clear up that fruit beer—gelatin, in particular, is effective. You can, though, get ahead of the problem by adding pectic enzyme at the same time you add your fruit—this will prevent the formation of pectin haze to begin with! And, of course, you can always rely on the great clarifier: time.
This, though, brings us to another fruit-related issue: over time, you may be creating (thanks to your fruit addition) the dreaded bottle bomb or gusher. Not all of the sugars in fruit are simple, but they are pretty much all fermentable. Those complex sugars, though, will take a lot longer to convert. If you bottle your fruit beer and it isn’t consumed in a relatively short time frame (2–3 months), then there’s a chance that the further consumption of those complex sugars will steadily increase the pressure in the bottle.
In its most tame form, this leads to overcarbonation, which is still unpleasant, frankly, but manageable. At slightly higher levels, this overcarbonation can result in a “gusher,” with beer pouring uncontrollably out of the freshly opened bottle as you scramble toward the sink. If too much sugar is left behind, though, we can get something more dangerous: a bottle bomb. If the pressure inside the bottle increases to a level that the glass can no longer sustain, the bottle will rupture, often violently.
This is no laughing matter. Give your beer plenty of time to finish up when using fruit, and you might even consider a metabisulfite addition to shut down any further fermentation and then force-carbonating before bottling. Or just put it all in a keg and leave it there!
A Holistic View
Adding fruit to your beer is a fantastic way to expand your flavor options and test your creativity. Just keep in mind that we’re adding more than just fruity flavors to that beer: we’re adding fruit. So long as you’re making appropriate adjustments to your recipe and thinking in terms of the “whole finished beer,” there’s no reason you can’t do so successfully!