The world of fruit beer is filled with misnomers, misogyny, and misconceptions. Fruit is the ever trendy thing, especially in sour beers and the New England IPA trend (specifically “Milkshake” IPAs). However, not all fruit beer is created equal! Some are made with artificial flavors, natural flavors, concentrates, or extracts; others are made with fresh fruit, fruit puree (aseptic or frozen), or IQF fruit. In a world with so many fruity choices, where is a beer drinker to turn? Caveat Emptor dear friend. Educate yourself and fight back against subpar beer.
First, some quick definitions. Natural flavorings are derived from natural sources, not necessarily from the fruit or flavor they portray. Natural flavors are becoming more and more a product of Genetically Modified Yeast (which is pretty badass!) but they are probably not from whatever fruit they taste like. Artificial flavorings are made in a lab/plant and are chemically derived isolates of specific fruit flavors (i.e. isoamyl acetate for banana). Extracts are exactly as they sound, fruit flavors extracted from the fruit they taste like. Concentrates are fruit purees or fruit juices that have some of their water removed (usually from vacuum distillation), generally concentrating their sugar content to around 60 Brix (this is usually a 6:1 concentration). Fruit purees come in several forms, from mildly concentrated to whole fruit Single Strength. Fresh fruit is self-explanatory, you can get it at any grocery store. IQF fruit stands for Individually Quick Frozen, and surprisingly enough is often more ripe than fresh fruit (this is due to the fact that IQF fruit is picked at the peak of ripeness in the field and frozen the same day. Fresh fruit is picked weeks before peak freshness and allowed to “ripen” in the store/warehouses). We at Urban Artifact strictly use fresh fruit, IQF fruit, or whole fruit single strength puree, depending on the application.
Beers made with natural flavors, artificial flavors, or extracts are not what we at Urban Artifact would call fruit beers. These are fruit flavored beers. There comes a line for every consumer that when crossed, a product stops being one thing and becomes another. For me, it is when a brewer makes a concession when brewing a fruit beer, whether it be monetary, time & labor, or purely based on taste, that their choices take a beer from being a real fruit beer to being a fruit flavored beer. Beers made with flavorings or extracts excel at highlighting the top notes of any fruit or flavor you can imagine. However, they miss out on the je nai se quois of real fruit. There is a depth and complexity of flavor that is only achievable through the use of real whole fruit. There is a reason a strawberry starburst tastes great for a piece of candy, but there is also a reason it doesn’t actually taste like eating a strawberry. That reason is flavorings.
You can spot these cheap fruit beer imitations by looking for a couple of things. First, a real fruit beer will look like a real fruit beer. A blueberry beer will look nice and purple. A raspberry beer will be brilliantly red. A beer that is your regular beer pale yellow color, there is a high chance the beer is made using flavorings. There are fakers out there too. Beware of the beer that claims to be a fruit beer, yet is colored with fruit juice. Wild Blue Blueberry Lager is one such culprit. Blueberry purely due to flavoring and colored with juice. A farce in the face of the consumer if I have ever seen one. Another giveaway is the aroma. Does it smell like fruit flavored candy? Can you smell it across the bar whenever it is ordered and poured? Is the smell extremely distinct and simple? If you answered yes to all of these, there is a good chance you have an imitation fruit flavored beer. Real fruit beers, while highly aromatic, will be much more complex and generally smell like fresh fruit, juice, or preserves; rather than a piece of sugary candy. The final test is taste. Often times, a beer made with extracts or flavorings will taste far too intense. The beer will exhibit a plasticiness or even a light medicinal like bitterness on the finish. The fruit flavor will be extremely one-note (notice a trend here?) and oftentimes fall flat on the palate versus the over the top aromatics.
Beers made with real fruit will exhibit a depth and complexity of flavor that is not achievable for flavorings and extracts. There will be people out there that will tell you it’s not worth the cost, the time, or the effort in brewing real fruit beers. There will be brewers out there that will tell you the taste difference is negligible. They are wrong. A strawberry
beer can taste like fresh strawberries. A banana beer doesn’t have to taste like runts candy. A beer made with real tart cherries could change your life and tastes forever. With real fruit, gone are the cough syrup, overly sweet, oddly obscene fruit flavors of cherry, “blue” raspberry, and banana. Levels of aromatic and taste complexity that you haven’t enjoyed since childhood are possible.
Finding a real fruit beer is far easier than spotting a fake fruit flavored beer. The color will often time be strikingly beautiful. The aroma, will subtle from a distance, will unfurl a bounty of delight in your glass and under your nose. The flavor will be more reminiscent to tree or vine-ripened fruit than flavoring can ever get. Additionally, real fruit beers are far less likely to be backsweetened with sugar, meaning the beer will taste dry on the palate. Fruit flavored beers will backsweeten their products to hide the processed flavor. On the label be on the lookout for key phrases. More often than not, a beer will say how much or what kind of fruits are added, whereas a flavored only beer will merely say contains natural or artificial flavors. A real fruit beer will not shy away from telling you, the consumer, what you are in for. Look for transparency in your product and you will not be disappointed.
One final note. Let’s put to be this ridiculous and outdated notion that fruit beers are for women. It is absurd, and you should feel like a damn fool if you ascribe to such sexist beliefs. What is grain but the fruit of a grass? What is wine but the fermented juice of grapes? What is absurd is overly sweet, purposefully obfuscating, fruit-flavored crap out there targeted towards women and young drinkers. Banish that crap from your fridge and step up to the world of real fruit beers.
Fruit beers, that is real fruit beers, are truly a taste to behold. There is a litany of real fruit beers out there and they are not all created equal. Caveat Emptor dear drinker. Most real fruit beers, in our eyes (and noses and mouths), will taste better than most fruit flavored beers. The best fruit beers will always taste better than the best fruit flavored beers. And that’s what you want, it’s what we all want. Real Fruit’s Better.
Bret Kollmann Baker
Chief of Brewing Operations