Fruits of Their Labor: The Challenges and Rewards of Brewing with Fruit

By Ezra Johnson-Greenough

Much like styles of craft beer, there are endless types of fruit, from strange and exotic like mango and papaya, to classics like raspberries and cherries. Fruits have been used in brewing likely since the advent of fermentation, but fell out of favor with the rise of industrial brewing due to the increasing costs of fresh fruit and the processing they require.

With the craft brewing renaissance in America, brewers and fans are turning an eye to fruit beers that are being brewed with styles and techniques both old and new.

The Fruit Beers of Old

American Fruit Ales in the 90s were becoming the equivalent of the American-style Lager, which essentially meant mass produced with cheaper ingredients and adjuncts. Over the years, category guidelines for the Great American Beer Festival shows the style title has changed many times, even being simplified to just Raspberry Beer in 1998. I credit these fruit beers of old to the development of extracts and the “natural and artificial flavorings” listed in the ingredients of most candy. With a drop of flavoring your Jolly Rancher candy may taste distinctly like watermelon. When used in beer, extracts can add specific fruit flavor but can still taste fake, sweet and fall flat without depth of flavor from real fruit.

Today, with the increasingly diverse palate of the educated craft beer drinker, more and more brewers are trying their hand at these special beers and expanding their repertoire to include these often expensive styles. Investing the time and brewing with real fruit can yield some of the most challenging but rewarding craft beers.

The Challenges of Brewing with Fruit

The difficulties of using natural fruit are numerous, a frequent accepter of said challenge is Brewer Alex Ganum of Portland, Oregon’s Upright Brewery, “Brewing with real fruit has several disadvantages—it’s messy, labor intensive, difficult to time with growers, and yields are often low as the fruit soaks up plenty of beer.“

Not to mention the chance of infection by wild yeasts like Brettanomyces found on the skins of fruit. Growing seasons and consistency are also factors, as a farmers crop can yield different amounts and flavors from year to year and the availability of fruits is never certain. Changes from batch to batch can make consistency in fruit beers difficult. So why would a brewer take up the challenge?

“Brewing with fruit opens up the doors for creativity,” says Jason McAdam co-founder of the Portland Fruit Beer Festival and owner/brewer of Burnside Brewing. “You can brew within style guidelines or break them entirely.”

Overcoming Fruit’s Difficulties

So what are these brewers’ methods in overcoming the challenges fruit can bring? “I shoot for an aroma and flavor profile that highlights interesting aspects of the fruit, while trying not to overwhelm the beer so it doesn’t get lost,” said Ganum on the techniques he employs at Upright Brewing. He also does not attempt any special treatment, “just making sure the fruit itself is excellent from the get-go.“

Taking the fruit right from the field without treatment makes many brewers nervous when trying to avoid wild yeasts and has lead many to boil the fruit before adding to beer. It’s a process that may decrease risk of wild yeasts, but can also burn off subtle flavors and aromas. Fruits that are more tart can be complemented from the acidic flavors that wild yeasts develop, as they tend to sharpen and brighten flavors. This is something brewers have tried to mimic by making additions of ingredients like citric acid to emulate that found in fruit.

McAdam has his own preference in brewing with fruit, “I personally think that if I am going to make a fruit beer, it becomes more round and full flavored when I add fruit in all stages of the brewing process.” Like a new beer called Red Light District he created for the upcoming second annual Portland Fruit Beer Festival. This beer was brewed with Belgian chocolate and additions of strawberries in three different stages of the brewing process; boil, bright tank (where freshly fermented beer rests to clarify) and a final post primary fermentation in Rum barrels.

McAdam does not approach the use of fruit the same way in all beers, “My method depends on what I’m trying to achieve, and Brix definitely matters.” Brix is a way to measure the sugar content in fruit. “The higher the Brix (which is measured in degrees), the sweeter the fruit—this will have an impact on the flavor just like cooking. Also, you have to take into consideration gravity boost (increase the sugar content) and extra fermentables,” said McAdam.

Advantages of Fruit Puree

Both McAdam and Ganum are fans of using fruit purees like those made by Oregon Fruit Products (OFP). These purees are lightly processed to remove undesirables like pits and stems while going through a flash heating pasteurization killing wild yeasts and bacteria while maintaining the integrity of the fruit. Purees from companies like OFP promise a fresh product without preservatives, flavorings or colorings, giving you the closest possible approximation of fresh fruit without the negatives.

Both brewers use purees as well as fresh fruit when appropriate, regarding its pros and cons, Ganum says, “Fresh fruit tends to have more nuanced flavors and can be great for sour/funky beers, where the resident yeasts and bacteria from the orchard may produce unique characteristics. Pureed fruit, assuming it’s pasteurized, is tremendously more predictable,“ said Ganum.

It’s even becoming possible to find exotic fruits like mango puree that the brewers at The Commons Brewery used in their Saigon Saison, a beer inspired by Vietnamese cooking.

Video: Breakside Brewing- Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Beer for the 2012 Portland Fruit Beer Festival

Brewmaster Ben Edmunds shares a little bit about how he worked with the special ingredients for this beer, which include strawberries, rhubarb, graham cracker and whole strawberry-rhubarb pies!


Ezra Johnson-GreenoughEzra Johnson-Greenough is a writer, brewer, artist and event planner, known online by some as Samurai Artist. When not dreaming up exotic beers like his recent BLT Gose and planning events such as Portland Beer Week, Brewing up Cocktails and the Portland Fruit Beer Festival he is keeping his beer blog The New School up to date and designing beer labels and logos for Upright Brewing and Burnside Brewing among others.