In a world where brewers explore new and exotic flavors at every turn—whether out of personal creativity or professional necessity—there are any number of discussions to be had about ingredient sourcing, usage, and combinations.
This is as true of fruit as it is of any other specialty ingredient.
Fruit was one of the first things that craft beer used to differentiate itself from mass-market beer. (Remember the ubiquity of fruited wheat beers in the late ’90s and early ’00s?) Yet it remains something of a mysterious ingredient for many brewers. Lost in much of the debate, however—about extracts versus real fruit, puréed versus macerated versus whole, adding fruit in the boil versus the fermentor, and so on—is this question: Do you actually need that fruit in the first place?
Now, I’m not passive-aggressively suggesting that you shouldn’t brew with fruit. Nor am I suggesting that you should avoid real fruit and start hitting the chemical extracts. What I’m saying is that brewers are more than capable of producing fruit-forward beers that contain no fruit or fruit extracts at all. Hops, yeast, grain, and sugars can all be used to push “fruity” flavors.
Let’s take a tour through some common fruit flavors sought by brewers, then we can identify ways to “fake” those flavors in your beer without getting anywhere near your favorite farmer’s market, produce aisle, or chemistry set.
Citrus & Tropical
Starting with an obvious one here: People really seem to like the citrus and tropical flavors in their beer, eh? Where brewers lose me, though, is how often they’re eagerly shoveling these fruits into their beer and rolling the dice on other flavors that I may not want—acidity, for one.
Let’s quickly acknowledge the tropical elephant in the room and say that Citra hops are the current leader-in-the-clubhouse for “best way to get bright citrus and tropical flavors in your beer without using any actual fruit.” Others make a similar case for Galaxy. If I stopped there, though, it would be beer-writing malpractice.
There are so many more fascinating hop varieties out there. My favorite for the past couple of years has been Polaris. A German cultivar, Polaris has a curious and assertive blend of pineapple and mint-basil that does wonderful things in a wide range of styles. If Citra is like a pure punch of grapefruit juice straight out of your fridge, Polaris is a refined fruit salad served at a five-star resort in Polynesia. Also coming out of Germany’s Hop Research Center Hüll is Mandarina Bavaria, which adds lemon and lime notes to its big, clean orange and pineapple flavors. If you want to give that lemon-lime character a starring role, you should also be looking south toward Australia and New Zealand. Varieties such as Riwaka, Motueka, and Pacific Jade will all fit the bill. However, be careful of their secondary flavors: Their terroir often includes a healthy dose of spice and herb character that may not mesh with your recipe.
Your yeast can also add an extra dose of citrus or tropical character. Possibilities include Imperial’s A20 Citrus strain, a diastatic “wild” Saccharomyces strain that can produce lemon, orange, and pineapple notes. Or, try your luck with any of several kveiks, including the Voss and Hornindal cultures, which like to ferment warmly and quickly. (For more on this, Brewing with Kveik: What Have We Learned So Far?) Kveiks aren’t your typical brewing yeasts, and they may require some trial and error before you find just the right expression for your fruit profile. However, they tend to produce more of the esters we associate with citrus and tropical fruit than other ale strains, with fewer secondary flavors that might distract from that goal.
I once had a colleague who seemed mightily impressed that brewers could produce a “banana bread” beer. It was hard to resist homebrewer-splaining that, in fact, such a creation is one of the easiest in a brewer’s bag of tricks.
The bread part is easy enough to understand, of course, thanks to the familiar bakery-like flavors that malt can provide. It’s the banana part that comes as a surprise to the layperson—as we know, it just takes is the right yeast strain and fermentation profile. Most any weissbier yeast will get the job done here, as will many Belgian strains. But which will give the purest impression, and how do we coax it out?
Wyeast 3068 Weihenstephan Weizen and White Labs WLP380 Hefeweizen IV Ale both come from the classic Weihenstephaner weissbier strain, and they both produce clove and banana flavors. The banana can be accentuated (and the clove restrained) relatively easily by paying close attention to fermentation temperature and pitching rate.
First, don’t go crazy with your pitching rate. Most pitching calculators are wildly risk-averse and have us overpitching by a sizable margin. Not only is this a generally wasteful practice that should be avoided for most beers, but ignoring it is especially important when trying to promote banana (isoamyl acetate) esters in your beer because overpitching your yeast (as over-oxygenating your wort) will absolutely void it. Yeast generally produce esters such as isoamyl acetate when they are stressed; while it’s not a good idea to deliberately stress your yeast all the time, it’s also not productive (in this case) to make their lives too easy, either. Stick to a single pack or tube of yeast for your five-gallon (19-liter) banana-themed batch and ferment it relatively warm (67–70°F/19–21°C), and you should end up with a clear impression of banana with minimal (or virtually absent) phenolic character.
While there aren’t many hops that will kick in some banana flavor, there is one that startled me with it: Jarrylo. After the 2019 Homebrew Con in Providence, Rhode Island, I came home (as usual) with a pile of samples. One was an ounce of Jarrylo, which I understood to be a Styrian-esque variety with a bit more tropical-fruit character. I tossed it into a batch of Bohemian pils, just for kicks, and almost convinced myself that I’d used the wrong yeast: There was a marked banana note in the nose. Sure enough, some online sleuthing turned up reports of banana notes in Jarrylo, and I filed away the impression for the next time I wanted an extra punch of banana—and, since then, it’s produced some fun roggenbiers for me.
Berry, Berry Good
As an early devotee of English ales, I inevitably stumbled across ingredients that amped up the flavors of berries. Any number of strains—but especially in the British families of ale yeasts—can produce some berry-like esters, but one in particular out-berries the rest: the Ringwood strain, available commercially as Wyeast 1187 Ringwood.
There’s a lot going on there, but what’s unavoidable is a big punch of strawberry, black currant, and berry-jam flavor. You do need to watch your temperatures to avoid a ton of diacetyl precursors and to plan on a healthy diacetyl rest, however—unlike the weissbier yeasts—there’s no need to push the temperatures up to get a mouthful of fruit. (Interestingly, recent genetic research has found that the Ringwood yeast is technically a lager strain—but that doesn’t change anything about how we know it to behave or the fruity esters that it can produce.)
For those looking for a milder or cleaner impression, I suggest the trusty (for me, anyway) Wyeast 1007 German Ale strain or one of the many Kölsch strains out there. You’ll still get a pleasant strawberry-like ester, but generally you won’t need to wrestle with the big, complex, and sometimes unpredictably weird profile you get from Ringwood.
There are also some hops worth mentioning here. One is Bramling Cross, a variety I’ve written about before; my good friend Mike Todd of the Stoney Creek Homebrewers once brought us a bitter that tasted for all the world like he’d fermented it on a whole blackberry patch. It was truly stunning, and since that day, whenever I want big berry character, I get my hands on some late-addition Bramling Cross. (For a recipe based on Mike’s beer, see “Blackberry Bitter English Pale Ale Recipe,” beerandbrewing.com.)
Less well-known but still frequently available are Enigma (an Australian variety that hits the red currant and raspberry buttons pretty hard), Hüll Melon, and Barbe Rouge. The French hop Barbe Rouge is especially fun to work with: Despite its delicate flavors, it has a medium-high alpha-acid range that makes it a great choice for more bitter American ales.
Berries—either because they’re too aggressive, like raspberry, or too elusive, like strawberry and blueberry—can be a challenging flavor to either balance or promote when using real fruit. However, when using regular beer ingredients, it’s surprisingly user-friendly.
Stoned & Pitted
Even before Mike brought me his now-legendary Bramling-fueled bitter, I’d found my own example of an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fruited” beer, and this one positively reeked of peaches: my Peachtree American IPA (see beerandbrewing.com for the recipe). Developing that beer also helped me realize that stone and pit fruits are underappreciated as complementary beer flavors. Sure, everyone appreciates citrus- and tropical-forward New World hops, but there’s also a blend of earthiness, lightness, and sweetness in stone fruits that make for outstanding beers. What’s more, you can get those flavors from virtually every ingredient axis: hops, yeast, and grain.
If you’re in the market for peach and apricot, there are any number of hops that will help get you there. My Peachtree American IPA leans on late additions of Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra, but I’ve come to find that it’s the Amarillo that’s doing most of the heavy lifting there. How? Because of Cryo hops. Whenever I use Cryo Amarillo, even on its own, the beer positively sings with peach, nectarine, and mango flavors. Azacca also can hit these same notes, but it’s usually too muted to really compete—and because we’re discussing these flavors in the context of “you don’t really need fruit after all,” I’d definitely stick with the Amarillo.
If grapes are more your target, it’s hard to beat Nelson Sauvin, with its crisp green-grape and white-wine character. Nelson also is a bit of a flavor monster, with a distinctive flavor that makes it the easiest hop to identify this side of Sorachi Ace. Much like Mike’s Blackberry Bitter and my Peachtree IPA, Nelson Sauvin hops can make a beer taste for all the world like it has had a significant fruit addition.
As we get “darker” in stone-fruit flavors, we start to shift away from hops. Not entirely, of course—Riwaka and Idaho Gem are two varieties that can provide deeper date and cherry notes. However, there are better ways to skin this particular cat.
When I want those deep, dark pit-fruit flavors, I reach for two things: high-Lovibond crystal malts and dark candi syrup. Crystal malts in the range of 80 to 150°L will all contribute raisin, fig, and prune notes that might otherwise be hard to add to your beer. However, the king of the hill here is Special B. Nothing else adds such a wonderful blend of cherry, raisin, and date richness to a beer, and it will do so without adding any sharp roast flavors—something that can happen with those 120 to 150°L crystal malts. To put the icing on the cake—or the pie, as it were—you can also consider a mixed yeast blend such Roeselare, with its distinctive cherry-pie flavors.
First, Use What You Have
One of the hooks that dragged me into craft beer in the first place was the way in which four humble ingredients—grain, hops, yeast, and water—could produce and mimic so many different flavors on the palate.
I grew up in an era where almost all beer tasted like corn and carbonation, and it was a revelation to taste orange groves and berry patches and banana trees and figgy pudding—and to know that it could be done without an ounce of actual fruit.
One you’ve mastered getting fruit flavors out of these classic ingredients and out of fermentation, then you’ve added some delicious options to your skill set—and, guess what? You can use them with actual fruit, too, using them to boost and underscore those real-fruit flavors. That might be just what you need to take your fruit beers to the next level.
Experiment with real fruit to your heart’s content. However, here’s a bit of humble, economical, and ironically authentic advice: Start by using what you already have, and fake it till you make it.