Adventures in Home-brewed Fruit Beers

With temps well into the eighties (and even nineties by us!), I think it’s safe to say it’s summer: the season for refreshing fruit beer!

Of course, fruit beers can be enjoyed year round, but I find that a nice light bodied, crisp beer with a little fruitiness just does the trick on those hot days. For those of you cringing, I’m not talking about Lemon Berry Shandy. I’m talking real, delicious fruit beers.

We’ve gone whole hog on the fruit beer front here in the LBLF househould. Recently we’ve brewed a Prickly Pear Mesquite Honey Wheat (try to say that ten times fast), and a Blackberry Belgian Stout. As you can see, we don’t exactly shy away from bold and crazy flavors. BOTH of these beers were the brain child of my husband – an unashamed fruit beer lover.

We're Here for BEER

We (he) chose to play with prickly pear because Mike is from the Southwest and has had a vision for a prickly pear wheat for ages now. In order to FIND prickly pear, we turned to Jungle Jim’s, our local grocery store mecca which seems to have an endless supply of random and hard to find foods. As luck would have it, they had a whole slew of prickly pear fruits. 

Prickly pear fruit grows on a prickly pear cactus and comes in two colors: pink and green. Before starting, we wanted to get a sense of the flavor concentration before deciding how much fruit to use, plus I have never actually tried it. The flavor is interesting. It has a fairly mild, somewhat melon-like, pleasantly sweet flavor. The test fruit was a beautiful magenta, while the others we ended up using for the beer were green. Can you imagine how fabulous this beer would’ve looked if we had used pink prickly pear? Next time.

When thinking about making a fruit beer, consider that certain fruits are much more powerful in flavor than others. Also, the more ripe the fruit, the better for flavor concentration and overall taste. The most popular fruit beers by far are made with raspberries and cherries. Both fruits are typical in historical and modern day lambic beers, so it kind of makes sense that they are popular choices, but they are also assertive fruit flavors. Fruits like blueberries and strawberries are much milder in flavor and require almost twice (or more) the amount of fruit. Unfortunately that makes them more expensive to make.

Blackberry Belgian and Session IPA

Once you’ve decided on the fruit beer you’d like to make, in our case prickly pear for the wheat and blackberry for the stout, you need to figure out how to make this fruit beer magic happen. It is actually a bit harder than it sounds.

You have a few options for the form of the fruit that you add: whole, fresh fruit, fruit puree, or fruit extract. Personally, we have used both the purees and whole fruits with success, but have never used an extract. From what I’ve read, it is hard to mask the artificial taste of a fruit extract in your beer. Again, I have no personal experience, I’m just sharing what some of my homebrew books have said (Brewing Classic Styles, and Designing Great Beers were used as reference for this post).

For the prickly pear mesquite honey wheat, since we were using whole fruit, we very carefully peeled it (which required gloves), then pureed it in a blender. Since we weren’t quite ready to add it to our beer, we froze it. Freezing, in addition to being convenient, helps to kill off any unwanted bacteria that might affect the flavor of the beer and breaks open the fruit cell walls for better access to all that fruity deliciousness.

With both beers, we chose to add the fruit in a hop bag and then into our secondary fermentation vessel. This seems to be a popular choice for many homebrewers. Another option is to steep the fruit in the hot wort at the end of the boil for fifteen to thirty minutes. In terms of best practice, there isn’t a clear winner from what I can tell. Out of the two books I reviewed, one far preferred placing the fruit into the secondary, while another didn’t think one was superior (though neither author had tried the fruit steeping technique).

Green Prickly Pear

For the amount of fruit, the general rule is to use about 1-2 lbs per gallon of beer. If you’re choosing a stronger fruit like raspberries you can get away with less, even 1/2 a pound, while milder fruits will require much more, even up to three or four times the amount. You can see why people give up and add extracts rather than dealing with so many pounds of fruit, especially commercial brewers.

For the prickly pear beer we added 7 5* pounds of fresh fruit. For the blackberry, we used half of a very large (96 oz) can of Vintner’s Best Blackberry wine base for our 5 gallon batch of Belgian Stout. (*oops!)

Blackberry Belgian Stout

Both beers are now done and tasting lovely. We added a cup of mesquite honey to naturally carbonate our keg of prickly pear wheat this time since we didn’t have space in our keezer, it took about two weeks but it was DEFINITELY carbonated. The flavor of the beer is unlike anything I’ve had – it’s smoky and dry, but refreshing and light at the same time. It does not taste anything like your typical fruit beer.

Last year was the first year for the Blackberry beer and it was a complete hit: slightly tart from the blackberries and Belgian yeast with a smoky smooth, somewhat mocha finish. So yummy. This year we accidentally used a can of whole blackberries, rather than the puree which we originally used. I’m not sure whether this had much of an effect, but the flavor this time around seems to be slightly more mocha than last time. The fruit still shines through to create a very balanced stout.

These beers could not possibly be more different. Overall, I’m extremely excited about them – viva la fruit!!

Oh! Oh! I almost forgot, I finally took the Certified Beer Server exam and passed with flying colors! Woohoo! (Certified Beer server is the first step to the designation of Cicerone, which is the beer equivalent to a wine sommelier). I learned LOTS just from a few weeks of studying and I plan to share some of that knowledge with you as we continue on this beer and food loving journey. Cheers!

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