Fruit In Beer
Fruit beers are getting quite popular these days. Heavily fruited sours are in extremely high demand, taking a lot of the spotlight that hazy IPA's have held over the last few years. Once maligned, fruit beer has reached an ascendancy that is both impressive and also predictable, given changing consumer preferences and the ongoing adjunct arms race in beer. How did this come to be, and what does this mean for our beers? Let's take a look.
When we opened in 2013, fruit beer had next to no respect. Outside of a few lambic producers, no one took fruit beers seriously on both the production and consumption sides of beer. Our first year in business, we offered a saison with raspberries on a fairly consistent basis. Although it was popular, it was interesting to see the reactions from many male patrons:
"Fruit beer? Nah, I don't want any of that."
Even though our early forays into fruited beers were pretty approachable, the concept was almost anathema to a lot of male clientele. I had a simple theory as to why that was--Sam Adams Cherry Wheat. I am not hating on Sam Adams--they made and continue to make a lot of quality beers, but Cherry Wheat was, in my opinion, just gross. This was the beer that you avoided in the cooler at your friend's barbecue, that would linger long after its variety pack brothers had been consumed. Made with fruit extract, it had a flavor that was pretty much straight cough syrup.
I think so many people had bad memories of this beer that it seriously may have been responsible for the lingering low opinion of fruit beer in general. Who knows? But I have another theory as to what changed popular opinion--Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin. When Grapefruit Sculpin hit the east coast, it was a big deal. Commanding a comparatively high price of $16 for a six pack, it regularly sold out everywhere. Here was a beer that "tough guys" could and did enjoy. It was such a big deal, it helped propel Ballast Point to that incredible billion dollar buyout from Constellation.
If I'm correct, I'm thankful for the success of that beer and the turnaround in peoples' perception, because I've always enjoyed making and drinking fruit beer. My best beer from my homebrewing days was a sour brown with lacto and Brett that was fermented with raspberries. I always wanted to be able to offer fruited sours, but it took some time for people to come around. By 2015, the stage was set.
A year before our expansion began, I brewed a pilot batch of a kettle-soured IPA with raspberries and put it on tap. This little beer was what became Raspberry Empress. Today, Empress is one of our most popular beers, securing a slot as one of our three year-round cores. When we first put Empress on tap in 2015, it was immediately popular. A fruited kettle sour that tastes like a raspberry mimosa with hops, it's not hard to see this beer's widespread appeal. Men and women both enjoyed it.
When we opened our Sterling facility in 2017, we began offering Raspberry Empress for distribution. Back then, I handled a lot of our sales, and most local beer buyers were completely unfamiliar with us. I would sample Empress at accounts, and a lot of times it got a lukewarm reception. "I like it, but I'm not sure customers will. It's too weird." I got this response a lot. It was a little frustrating because it sold so well in the taproom, and I knew it would be a hit at any bar that tried it out. It got to the point where I would cut to the chase and say "I promise this beer will sell well for you. If I'm wrong, please never buy anything from us again." I am happy to say I never lost an account from making that statement.
As consumer demand for fruited kettle sours became pretty solid, Empress became an easy sell. We started producing other, similar beers, and they sold well, too.
During this time, breweries such as the Answer, 450 North, and Kings started producing super fruited "smoothie style" sours to what has become a fever pitch in customer demand for this style of beer. These styles of beer feature unfermented fruit additions that push the limits of what some might consider beer, and have become immensely popular. Our own forays into this style began earlier this year. They've gotten a good reception, but like the offerings from other breweries, they are prone to refermentation, which can result in exploding cans. This has been a pretty hotly-debated topic in the world of professional brewing, but it is my opinion that these beers are becoming pretty established. Whether you like it or not, their appeal is undeniable.
On the philosophically opposite side of sour beer, fruited mixed fermentation beers have a time-honored place, with Belgian producers creating some of the most sought-after styles for decades. We launched our mixed fermentation sub-brand, Native Culture, in 2019, and many of these beers feature heavy whole fruit additions. We've begun to source our fruit locally, and we've been very happy with the results. This weekend, we released Buckshee, a coolship ale with blueberries grown outside Richmond. In a similar, yet much different way, these beers blur the line between what would be considered beer and wine. Other offerings include Persica, a golden sour with peaches, and Altruism, a dark sour ale made with elderberries we grow on site. We've also begun production on beer featuring wine grapes from some of our local vineyards.
I certainly don't see demand for more fruit in beer dropping off any time soon. Next weekend, we'll be releasing a super fruited zombie cocktail-inspired beer, which I'm sure will be popular. At the same time, we produced many fruited coolship and mixed ferm sours over the last year, which will slowly see release over the next few months. I'm most excited about our first "lambic style" (lambic is a protected trade designation in the EU) beers, which should see release this Christmas. If you enjoy these styles, we'll have even more of them to offer in 2021