My public yada-yada and private disdain for fruit-based beers goes back to the early 1990s. It was a time when my favorite beer was Killian’s Red Ale and Bud Light. I was writing about a new brewery, which went out of business nearly as fast as it came into existence. Its very young brewer was launching the venture with a line of fruit beers inspired by similar brews from Germany. The beers were not only way ahead of their time in the U.S. – but also not very good.
Fast forward two decades and my oh my, how the beer landscape has changed. The term “craft beer” flows as easily from the lips of sorority girls as it permeates the vocabulary of bearded hipsters. More breweries than ever dot America’s landscape (3,040 as of July 2014, according to the Brewers Association) and the sheer variety of stylistic expressions (How many way can we make an IPA?) is downright overwhelming. The craft beer revival has spawned growler fill stores and even package shops that specialize ONLY in craft beer, bombers, beers to cellar and one-off specialty brews. No new restaurant concept is complete without at least two dozen taps – or an on-site micro-brewery.
And along the way, fruit beers eased back into my life.
And I embrace them in every form. From the new shandy labels to beers infused with fruit; from Old World fruit ales and tart beers – beer and fruit are uniting in ways that tell me I’m going to get a refreshing, finely crafted beer with every sip.
My favorites? Well, of course! I’m happy to recommend:
Harpoon UFO Raspberry Hefeweizen -- 4.8 ABV
Wheat beer gets a kick in the pants with the addition of tart raspberry. I've been dishing praise on Harpoon lately and its brewer's skill at balancing authentic beer style with addition of fruit-- like raspberry or pumpkin (see the pumpkin ale story here).
Cloudy dark amber color, unfiltered. Crisp and refreshing on the first sip then a kiss of berry teases the mid-palate. Finishes slightly tart.
Blue Point Blueberry Ale -- 4.6 ABV
A delicious batch of golden ale is dosed with 732 pounds of fresh, plump blueberries to create this beer, a year-round best seller for the Patchogue, NY, brewery. Great blueberry aroma rises from the glass and – as should be the case with any fruit beer – there is a spot-on balance of fruit and well-made ale. This is one fruit beer that’s enjoyable enough to uncap more than one in a session. Blue Point was a pioneer in the New York craft beer industry and is a hometown favorite on Long Island. In February, it was announced that Anheuser-Busch bought Bluepoint. At that time, A-B executives did not anticipate any change of staffing or recipes.
RJ Rockers Son of a Peach Hefeweizen – 6 ABV
Family road trips to Florida when I was a kid were ultimately brought to a screeching halt at the first sign of a hand scrawled placard:
“Fresh Georgia Peaches”
Never mind that most Georgia peaches now come from South Carolina. That familiar sweet, sunshine-filled flavor is one that sticks deep into the gray matter. RJ Rockers has captured it in yet another great example of a well-made Hefeweizen that lays the foundation for perfectly balanced fruit flavor. Amber peachy in color with a light head that exudes aromatics. I could drink this beer year round – and am determined to work it into a marinade.
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Peach Wheat Ale – 8 ABV
I grew up nearly in the shadow of Kentucky’s great bourbon distilleries and the familiar smell of mash cooking is nearly as prevalent as the aforementioned allure of fresh peaches. In this beer, Alltech marries sweet, oaky bourbon with the great peach taste to create ale that is as enjoyable and refreshing as it is well-balanced and complex. A hint of bourbon kicks in mid-palate – this is ale with authentic flavors and the trademarks of a master brewer’s touch.
Samuel Smith Strawberry Ale – 5.1 ABV
This is the FIRST fruit beer I fell in love with. I often say that my “recreational” beer drinking relies on Old World labels – and this beer is one reason why. Samuel Smith has been making beer for hundreds of years and knows a thing or two about balance, market appeal and flavor. With an ABV that won’t leave you nodding off and just a hint of deliciously juicy organic strawberry, this is THE fruit beer that I recommend first to anyone wanting to head down to the berry patch. Sam Smith’s masterfully-made ale is the foundation; berries are local and organically certified. Fresh, crisp, clean finish.
Lindeman’s Framboise (2.5 ABV) and St. Louis Framboise (2.8 ABV)
Yeah, that’s two different labels – ‘cause I like ‘em both equally. “Framboise” means made with raspberries – Framboise was inspired by kriek – tart/sour beers made with cherries. Both of these raspberry beers pour with slight effervescent, beautiful berry color and hit the palate with a pleasing, attention getting sour/tart burst of flavor. There’s a tart sweetness as well, but not so much that you can’t pair these with desserts – like flourless chocolate torte.
Liefmans Cuvee-Brut – 6 ABV
Here come the cherries! The foundation of Cuvee-Brut is a blend of Liefmans Oud Bruin and Goudenband from different vintages, and can consist of between 15 and 20 different batches of beers. The blend is dosed with fresh cherries that are macerated for 18 months, bringing out the very best of its intense flavor. Liefmans Cuvée-Brut is a deep reddish-brown color, with a pale head and wood and almond notes. On the palate you taste the slightly sweet and gently bitter fruit flavors.
Curious Traveler Shandy – 4.4 ABV
If you recall the first shandies that came to market you were right – the best shandy was still the one you made yourself. Somebody wised up and as a result really captured my attention. Traveler Beer Co. makes a couple of shandy labels – but Curious Traveler has my vote. This wheat ale is well made – then given a squirt of citrusy and brisk lemon and lime. It’s perfect sipper on one of our stifling hot days. With the ABV of a good session beer, this Curious Traveler may just put down roots in my beer fridge.
Want to sample fruit beers -- and the growing number of ciders? The Aug. 30 Savannah Craft Brew Fest will feature a dedicated cider garden -- and several of its brewers will be pouring fruit beers. For more info, tickets and participating brewers, visit the fest website, www.savannahcraftbrewfest.com.