Fruit beers have long been the redheaded stepchildren of the beer world (sometimes literally, thanks to red fruits), passed over by “serious” drinkers who consider them gimmicky, only good for convincing their wine-drinking girlfriends that beer isn’t bad. Sure, there will always be fruity beers built on bland wheat bases (Sam Adams Cherry Wheat), but American brewers are getting more creative than that. They’re using more complex bases like stouts, brown ales, rye ales and barleywines; they’re taking cues from the Belgians, the oldest of fruit beer brewers, with big, bold wild ales spontaneously fermented in barrels to produce a riot of tart and sour flavors. In short, they’re learning to harness the nation’s harvest, from pumpkins to pluots, better than ever before. These are the best fruit beers of their labor.
New Glarus Serendipity (New Glarus, Wisconsin)
In summer of 2012, record heat and severe drought devastated Wisconsin’s famed cherry harvest, the same one that New Glarus Brewing relies on for its award-winning flagship Wisconsin Belgian Red. Brewmaster Dan Carey bought what cherries he could, but was forced to draw on the local apple and cranberry crops to meet demand. The result was Serendipity, a wild-fermented, oak-aged sour ale that brims with the flavors of Wisconsin’s favorite fruits.
Tasting Notes: This light-bodied, blood-red beer is very easy drinking for a sour ale, registering only 4% ABV. Earthy apple sweetness balances cranberry and cherry tartness up front, suggesting orchard-fresh fall cider. But it’s the dry, lip-puckering cranberry that lingers, leaving the palate refreshed and ready for another sip.
Short’s Soft Parade (Bellaire, Michigan)
The mad scientists at Short’s are known for turning unusual ingredients (bananas, carrots, spruce tips, marshmallow fluff) into outrageously bold, delicious specialty beers at a blistering pace (they’re brewing about 50 varieties in 2014). Soft Parade, one of their year-round flagships, is no different. Episodic and easygoing like The Doors’ song of the same name, this fruit rye ale is loaded with pureed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Tasting Notes: As fruity as any other beer on this list, Soft Parade’s big berry flavor is balanced by the toasted malts and spicy notes that are characteristic of a rye. Don’t let its easy-drinking quality fool you, though; at 7.5% ABV, it packs a punch.
Russian River Brewing Consecration (Santa Rosa, CA)
Russian River’s roots are firmly planted in the wine industry; the brewery was first owned by a vineyard, and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo grew up on one. So it’s no shock that they age beer in wine barrels. It’s what they’re famous for, in fact, and Consecration is the kind of richly complex sour brew that justifies the technique. A strong Belgian-style dark ale aged in local wineries’ Cab barrels along with currants and a trifecta of funk-inducing yeast and bacteria, its sourness is mellowed out by the high alcohol content (10% ABV).
Tasting Notes: You’ll want to sip this mouthwatering beer slowly in order to pick out all of the flavors: lots of oak, currants, vanilla and spice, with traces of tobacco, molasses and dry red wine. It’ll also keep you from getting knocked on your ass.
Dogfish Head Kvasir (Rehoboth Beach, MD)
Beyond barrel aging sour beers, another trend that’s fueling America’s brewing creativity is the revival of so-called ancient ales: centuries- or millennia-old traditional beverages that were lost to the sands of time and are re-created from historical texts and archaeological evidence. Dogfish Head is a pioneer in this brewing niche, and its Kvasir was developed from chemical, botanical and pollen analysis of a 3,500-year-old Danish birch bark drinking vessel that was found — no joke — in a tomb.
Tasting Notes: DH brewed this winter wheat beer with bog-grown cranberries and lingonberries, honey and birch syrup. In place of most of the hops are myrica gale and yarrow, two European flowering plants that were commonly used to flavor beer through the Middle Ages until hops replaced them. For such complex ingredients, the flavor profile is deceivingly simple: juicy, sweet-tart fruits are met by a subtle spice earthiness. Honey and ginger flavors surface in the milieu, as well, and the alcohol (10% ABV) is well hidden.
Blue Point Blueberry Ale (Patchogue, New York)
One of the first beers brewed at Blue Point’s Long Island headquarters, Blueberry Ale is made by adding 732 pounds of fresh highbush blueberries to each batch of easy-drinking golden ale. The result is a naturally flavored fruit beer (4.6% ABV), one of the brewery’s top sellers.
Tasting Notes: This is a crisp, refreshing summer thirst-quencher, with fresh, unadulterated blueberries up front and a sweet malt finish that leaves you wanting more.
Epic Brewing Brainless on Peaches (Salt Lake City, UT)
Founded in Utah in 2008, Epic was the first brewery to take advantage of newly relaxed state laws allowing brewers to venture north of 4% ABV. Give a brewer an inch, though, and he’ll take a mile; at 11.5% ABV, this intoxicatingly strong, fruity Belgian-style ale is the stuff of a Mormon teetotaler’s nightmares. A complex beer made by adding peach puree to Epic’s award-winning Belgian Golden Ale and aging it in French Chardonnay barrels, it begs to be shared with a discerning friend. (Each bottle is 22 ounces, after all.)
Tasting Notes: There’s a lot going on here. From the Belgian IPA base, there are fruity yeast flavors that dance across rich malts and spicy noble hops. Peach is present, but very subtle; not at all sweet and only faintly tart. The finish is champagne dry with a belly-warming alcohol afterburn. Sip it like a dessert wine with a piece of dark chocolate.
Founders Rübæus (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
By adding fresh raspberries at several different stages of fermentation, Founders has uncovered startling complexity in this 5.7% ABV ode to summer’s most flavorful red fruit.
Tasting Notes: First off, this is not a subtle fruit beer. So overwhelming is the berry flavor that drinking 12 ounces is like eating your way out of a raspberry patch. But it comes in distinct waves the break on your tongue in quick succession: first a juicy ripe berry sweetness, next a tangy tartness, and finally a pleasingly mild syrupy sweetness with a just a hint of bready malt.
The Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme (San Marcos, CA)
California’s legendary Port Brewing Company calls upon a vast library of over 1,000 oak bourbon, brandy, sherry, and wine barrels to brew Belgian-inspired beers under its Lost Abbey label. One of its oldest, most popular concoctions is the 11% ABV, cherry-infused Cuvee de Tomme. It starts as a complex quadruple brown ale, which is aged for a year in bourbon barrels with sour cherries and funky Brett yeast.
Tasting Notes: It’s like drinking a glass of very sour whiskey: soaked cherries smoothed out by traces of vanilla, tannins and dark chocolate that make it almost too easy to drink.
Dark Horse Tres Blueberry Stout (Marshall, Michigan)
Maybe a fruity stout is just the kind of improbable beer you’d expect from a brewery called Dark Horse. But blueberry? It’s an awfully subtle flavor to pick out of the chocolatey roasted coffee milieu of an inky black stout, but it’s also a point of pride; Michigan grows 100 million pounds of the stuff every year.
Tasting Notes: At first blush, the blueberry sweetness takes a backseat in this thin but otherwise traditional stout. But it’s there, however faint, rising brightly out of the bold, roasted beer.
Almanac Beer Co. Heirloom Pumpkin (San Francisco, CA)
Founded by a couple of San Francisco home brewers in 2010, Almanac espouses “farm-to-barrel” brewing, in which it partners with a different local farm to supply the fruit for each seasonal ale. Every beer is a celebration of another of Northern Cali’s staggering harvests — peaches, blackberries, pluots, apricots, pumpkins, oranges, citrons, lemons, strawberries, loquats, cherries — and local terroir. This newest release, a powerful American barleywine-style ale, is brewed with more than half a ton of organic heirloom pumpkins and aged for a year in rye and brandy barrels to create a belly-warming pumpkin pie spicing that’s perfect for autumn sipping.
Tasting Notes: Like everything this time of year, this is definitely pumpkin-flavored (pumpkin is a fruit, by the way, not a vegetable). But, unlike the fake stuff, this is fresh, raw pumpkin that shines through the pie spices and toffee sweetness, which are offset by the barleywine’s light boozy bitterness.