Fruit has been incorporated in European beers for hundreds of years. But less so in the United States where it has become a common brewing ingredient only in the decades since the craft beer revolution of the 1980s. In recent years, however, its popularity has exploded — more so than in any other nation.
“You look at any exciting, hyped brewery out there, and almost every single one is doing some form of fruited, massively flavor-forward beer,” says Bob Kunz, founder of Los Angeles’s Highland Park Brewery.
Fruit is not just appearing in the über-trendy hazy IPAs that have surged in popularity across the country. American brewers are using stone fruits, tropical fruits, and berries in almost every style of beer. Modern American fruit beers run the gamut from low-hopped wheat ales to traditional European sours to modern reinterpretations. Even dark, brooding porters have received the fruit treatment.
Brewers typically describe beer as being a complex product of three simple ingredients: malt, hops, and yeast. Scanning the modern craft beer landscape suggests that fruit could one day also be viewed as a cornerstone of American brewing — a fourth pillar, if you will.
So how — and why — has fruit become such a vital ingredient in stateside brewing?
The Rise of Fruit Beer in America
The story of fruit beer’s rise in America is also the story of craft beer — one of innovation and experimentation that encapsulates taproom culture and changing consumer preferences.
The story begins not in America, but in Europe with the continent’s traditional wild ales and sours. Most notable among them are Belgium’s funky, spontaneously fermented fruit Lambics, and Germany’s tart, sour Berliner weisses.
“As they have with many other beer styles, U.S. craft brewers embraced [these styles] with characteristic zeal, then took it to the extreme and reinvented them,” says Phil Markowski, master brewer at Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing.
One such example of that reinvention is fruit goses. A slightly higher ABV variation of the Berliner weisse, goses are not traditionally brewed with fruits in Germany. These days, they are among the most popular American fruit beers along with Berliner weisses, with U.S. craft brewers adding lemons, limes, raspberries, oranges — even cucumber — to the eye-wateringly sour style.
Not all the fruit beers found here are reimaginings of foreign imports, though. For the majority of America’s craft brewing history, the most common fruit beer has been a home-grown light, refreshing wheat beer made with various fresh fruits. This style was born as a direct product of the craft revolution, explains Max Bakker, master cicerone and senior educator at the Brewers Collective, Anheuser-Busch’s craft division.
When homebrewing was legalized in the 1980s, the craft brewers who burst onto the scene did so with experimental gusto. “The rule book was basically wide open, and people started looking at what they could add to their beers to create more flavor,” he says.
In those early days, brewers turned to locally grown fruits; their selections based on what would complement the flavors of the hops available at the time. Apricot, peach, and blueberry were among the most common early fruit beers, Bakker says.
As craft beer has evolved, hops have continued to shape the fruit styles enjoyed in this country. The combination of a growing selection of New World hops, mixed with new brewing techniques (like hop bursting and dry hopping), helped spawn the juicy New England IPAs widely enjoyed today.
On their own, these techniques and ingredients can add notes of mango, guava, pineapple, and passionfruit to beers. True to form, the next logical step for craft brewers and the most recent trend in fruit beer has been adding fruit to hazy IPAs, in fresh, pureéd, or juiced form.
“As the consumer taste for craft beer has shifted into very flavorful beer — whether that’s from hops or otherwise — it has opened the door for brewers to use more fruits,” says Jason Perkins, brewmaster at Portland, Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company.
The Influence of Taproom Culture
The high profitability of selling beer directly to customers at taprooms has been a major factor in the rapidly increasing number of U.S. brewers in recent years. Taprooms have no doubt also played a part in the growing popularity of fruit beers by opening the “craft” experience to a broader audience.
“Fruit beers have always been in taprooms because not everyone enjoys beer in the traditional sense of malt, hops, and yeast,” says Brewers Collective’s Bakker. “By adding another layer of flavor, and covering up some of the bitterness, you get a beer that everyone can enjoy.”
The accessibility of fruit beer also stretches beyond its flavor profile and into the complex world of beer names. In this instance, it’s a factor that has positively impacted taproom sales while also growing fruit beer’s popularity.
It takes a certain knowledge to understand the difference between a Berliner weisse and, say, a hefeweizen. But beyond that, esoteric and outlandish beer names continue to be in vogue among craft brewers. These can easily create an intimidating experience for drinkers who may be accompanying a more knowledgeable beer-drinking partner to the bar.
“Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot by getting too cute and not saying what the beer is,” says Al Marzi, chief brewing officer of Boston’s Harpoon Brewery. “People don’t know what to expect.”
Compare those technical and proprietary names with those of fruit beers, which are often more simple and contain an ingredient all drinkers will be familiar with. Mango Pale Ale or Passionfruit Sour — what you see is what you get, no insider knowledge required.
America’s Growing Thirst for Fruit Flavors
These are all compelling cases for the growing popularity of fruit beer in the U.S. But they focus solely on beer and beer culture. Another key factor may be fruit itself, and our nation’s evolving relationship with it.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service shows the availability of fresh fruit in America grew some 40 percent between 1970 and 2018. While this doesn’t definitively prove we’re eating more fresh fruit now than 50 years ago, it shows fresh fruit has at least become significantly more common in our day-to-day lives. The fact that the availability of processed fruit (canned, dried, frozen, etc.) dropped almost exactly the same amount during that period would point to the fact Americans have increasingly embraced fresh fruit.
So how does that impact beer?
The trends we see in the food space typically influence what we drink — especially booze. It’s no coincidence that consumers’ embracing of kale and Brussels sprouts has come at a time of increased popularity of bitter beers (IPAs), cocktails (Negroni), and black coffee.
Another food trend that’s borne out in alcohol is transparency of nutritional information, an often-cited factor in the explosive growth of hard seltzers. It’s no surprise drinkers crave such information when they’ve grown so accustomed to seeing it on most packaged items in grocery stores. Before hard seltzers, this just didn’t exist in booze.
Indeed, the rise of hard seltzers could be one trend that ties everything together.
“It’s really fascinating that there is this momentum for those fruited beers — which are more sweet — when in general, the beverage as a sector is moving towards less sweet,” says Highland Park’s Kunz.
While a decadent, calorie-laden IPA would appear to share little in common with White Claw, there is one thing that ties them both together, Kunz says: “Fruit flavors.” All at a time when fresh fruit is more available than ever in American supermarkets.
Further Growth for Fruit Beers?
Even though fruit is now being used in every style of beer across the U.S., we may have hit the point of peak fruit beer. We probably shouldn’t expect any further surge in popularity unless craft beer attracts more drinkers from other categories.
According to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI, dollar sales of craft fruit beers have grown at almost exactly the same rate as craft beer overall over the past 52 weeks. “I’d be a little reluctant to say it’s a trend,” says Harpoon’s Marzi. “I think it’s just a case of fruit being included in more styles of beer.”
New England IPA it may never be, but the sales data and testimonies of brewers nationwide confirm one thing: Fruit is one of the most important ingredients in modern craft brewing.
Published: October 13, 2020