Spread Some Holiday Cheer with Fruit Cake & Craft Beer

By Andy Sparhawk

Nothing gets a tougher rap during the holidays than the fruit cake. Long has it been the poster child for bogus gifts. The bejeweled baked good is looked upon suspiciously, a potential re-gift, perhaps passed around multiple holiday seasons.  Sure the bright green candy-lime cherries are puzzling, but this is an underrated goodie that is far more appealing than stale gingerbread spackled together with semi-hardened confectioners’ sugar.

Not to mention, in the eyes of a craft beer enthusiast, a fruit cake’s design is an amalgamation of flavor components. The candies, fruits, nuts, spice and the addition of boozy spirits all seem to scream, “Pair me with a pint!” In fact, it is believed that the earliest reference to fruit cake dates back to Roman times when “pine nuts and raisins were mixed into barley1”. There is no doubt that the holidays (and fruit cake), which are skewed in retail ads and the media as wine-time, would be better served with craft beer.

If you’re like me, you relish the season as a chance to share a beer with loved ones and offer them an experience they may not have had.  We set out to dispel some of the rumors surrounding this holiday treat by pairing three cakes—two homemade and one store bought—with craft beers.  Here are the results:


Dark and dense—raisins, walnuts, cherries and pineapple combine with the addition of holiday spices of cinnamon, clove, and ginger all shellacked together with molasses. A slice of this sugar-drenched cake resembles a cobblestone street. The candied pecans represent just enough nuttiness to contrast with the cherries, which otherwise would turn this into one heck of a cloying mess.

Pairing suggestions:  On paper, candied fruit and burnt sugars sounded like a Belgian Strong Ale would be a winner, but the flavors were just too similar to provide any memorable effect. In one taster’s words, ”The flavors completely nullify” rather than accentuate each other.Better results were had by pursuing individual flavors in cake and beverage. Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, which has a spice character of its own, interplayed with the sweetness of the cake, as well as the other subtle spices.

Shmaltz Brewing Company’s 14th Anniversary Ale (right), melted the viscous molasses clinging to the inside of the mouth, allowing for earthy nuttiness and notes of figs to make their presence known.

Jewbellation Fourteen, in the He’Brew line of beers from Shmaltz, is no doubt a cold-weather sipper and will, I suspect, continue to improve with age. That’s great because in the UK fruit cake is made at the end of the nut harvest and saved to be enjoyed during the next harvest. I suggest stashing away a couple bottles along with a fruit cake to be evaluated next year.

Fruitcake_Traditional    Also Try:

Gingerbread Rum

Formed in a Bundt pan, this homemade cake highlights the holiday favorite of gingerbread, but enhances that flavor with with dried fruit, love, and oh yeah, spiced rum.

Pairing Suggestion: Notes of ginger and spice find great company with herbal flavors. For 36 years Anchor Brewing has released Our Special Ale (right), which is a different recipe brewed every year, but tends to always be an earthy and herbal example of a cherished holiday craft beer. The woody flavors of this year’s release work well with the light sugar sweetness, while herbal bitterness is a pleasant change from the sticky sweetness of the other fruit cake.

Another great match for the gingerbread cake was Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout. This beer is brewed with licorice and the smooth stout contrasts well with the spicy ginger.


Also try:

  • Adoration, Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY
  • Strong Winter Ale and Coffee Stout


Craft Beer Infused

It is pretty obvious that craft beer makes everything better, and if anything needs a little craft beer public relations, it’s fruit cake. Utilizing a growler of barrel-aged stout, beer was mixed into this recipe’s batter, cooked into the assortment of dried fruits and wrapped around the finished loaves in cheesecloth.

Despite the hypothesis that the black stout would create a dark fruit cake, the addition of the ale into the cake mixture, along with stewing the fruit, yielded a lighter-colored cake than expected. The rehydrated fruit diluted the stout into more of spiced brown ale.

Pairing Suggestion: A great pairing for this fruit cake is a medium-bodied rye ale. We tried O’Fallon Brewery’s Hemp Hop Rye, a tawny colored ale with the addition of hemp seed as another spicing element. The rye malt seemed to match the intensity of the cake while accentuating subtle spices and nutty flavors. The pairing is yeasty and highlights an apple spice that it quite enjoyable.

Another pairing to try was from Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing. Their Top Sail Imperial Porter (above) provided for a chocolate contrast to the fruit notes, while the smooth, dense barrel-aged ale blended with the strength of the cake, allowing for subtle flavors from both cake and beer to come through. Speaking of fruit, the Top Sail even handled the candied maraschino cherries which decorated this cake. The thick Imperial porter provided a dark chocolate covering to the cherry sweetness that lingered on the palate. Hop bitterness and subtle carbonation worked to reset the taste buds to accept another sweet bite.



I should point out that tasters preferred the homemade cakes (Ginger-rum and Beer-infused) better than the traditional fruit cake that was purchased—big shocker! While this in all likelihood has to do with my mom’s baking skills, it is notable that craft beers exhibit real fruit flavors rather than whatever Red 5 or other colored number would attempt to present. Perhaps much of the dread of fruit cakes is not from what they taste like but how they are now produced.

Much of the reason craft beer has garnered such a following is the belief that the brewers across this country make a product of character that had not been seen for a long time. Similarly, if made with same love and character as some of the beers that we have highlighted today, fruit cake may dispel its dreaded reputation and once again be enjoyed as a favorite holiday treat. See how easy it is to spread some holiday cheer? Just add craft beer.

Big thanks to my mom, Patty Hammond-Sparhawk for helping me bake the subject of this pairing feature; BA staff for providing tasting notes and Luke Trautwein for snapping the awesome pictures accompanying the piece.

Happy Holidays! -Andy

Source 1: http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/Fruitcake.htm

Andy Sparhawk, the Brewers Association's craft beer program coordinator, is a Certified Cicerone® and BJCP Beer Judge. He lives in Arvada, Colorado where he is a homebrewer and avid craft beer enthusiast. On occasion, Andy is inspired to write on his experiences with craft beer, and if they are not too ridiculous, you might see the results here on CraftBeer.com.

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