Breweries experiment with fruit beer

By Michael Macagnone

Small sections of beer distributors’ shelves look like something out of a farmer’s… Small sections of beer distributors’ shelves look like something out of a farmer’s market.

There might be a blueberry stout next to traditional lager, or a pumpkin ale shelved above a German Pilsner. It’s beer, sure. The brewers use the four basic ingredients — malt, hops, yeast and water — but with fruits mixed in.

Although a few major producers offer fruit beers — Miller Chill, for example, has a touch of lime — most fruit beers come from smaller, craft breweries like Dogfish Head in Delaware or East End Brewing Company in Pittsburgh.

Leaning on the counter at a South Side establishment called The Bar at 2132, manager Taite Hopwood showed off about a half-dozen alternative beers and explained why some people reach for those varieties.

“Everybody likes to try new stuff, and if they like it a lot, they buy more,” he said.

Adding fruit or other ingredients usually makes for a lighter tasting beer, as well as one lighter in alcohol, Hopwood said. He said that the fruit is usually added in the last steps of the fermentation process to give a batch a distinct twist. The strength of the beer’s fruit taste depends upon when the process the brewer adds the fruit into the batch. Scott Smith, the owner of East End Brewing Company in Pittsburgh, said that his company tries to produce beer with just a hint of fruit taste.

“My preference is for it to be there in the background, not be the overwhelming character of the beer,” he said.

This can be done a few ways, Smith said. Brewers can add the fruit in the boil — the stage before fermentation — or put all the ingredients in for a secondary fermentation with the sugars from the fruit after the hops and malt have mostly fermented. Smith said that the strength of the flavor also depends on the type of beer being brewed: a heavier imperial stout will need more fruit than a light yellow lager to get the right taste.

Ed Meyer, who owns, an online brew supply company, agreed.

“It’s difficult to get the right combination of flavors at the right strength,” he said. “It typically takes some iteration and practice.”

His company mostly supplies home brewers with their equipment and ingredients. He said that fruit-brewed beer is made primarily by small brewers and microbreweries, although such tendencies are hard to track. The craft brewing market is small — about 10 percent of the American market — and fruit-brewed beers make up an even smaller portion of that.

“Overall, it’s less than 1 percent of what craft brewing market is. Just a guess,” he said. “90 percent of the beers in the world are the yellow lager. That’s your Millers, your Budweisers.”

Mark Rieth, the owner of Atwater Brewery in Michigan, said that the majority of craft beer drinkers are younger, as they’re less loyal to major brands and more willing to experiment.

About 70 percent of craft beer drinkers are less than 50 years old, and the fastest growing demographic of craft drinkers is persons under 30, according to information from the Brewers Association, a national industry advocacy group. Drinkers born after 1979 made up about one-third of craft brewing customers and bought more than 9 million barrels nationwide last year.

Of the hundreds of varieties of beer available from distributors and bars in Oakland, a few dozen have fruit in them. The small breweries that make most of the craft beers in Oakland produce one or two fruit beers out of a dozen or more varieties. Some brewers still stick to tradition, though.

Hofbräuhaus, a brewpub in the South Side, follows the German purity law called the “Reinheitsgebot:” The brewers never use any ingredients other than the four basics of water, malt, hops and yeast.

Assistant brewer Shawn Setzenfand said that the tradition helps the producers identify with their product: They operate a German brewery, not an experimental American one.

He said that experimenting with fruit and other ingredients “is a very different style, for a more radical American brewery. It’s not what we shoot for here.”

When Hofbräuhaus’ beers say they have “hints of chocolate” or other flavors, they come from different kinds of malts and hops rather than new ingredients. Staying within the rules, Hofbräuhaus still has nearly 20 varieties of beer, which vary from month to month.

Rieth said that the majority of Atwater’s beers follow the German purity law as well; even the Voodoo Vator Dopplebock has only the main four ingredients. Generally, Rieth said that it’s a German brewery, despite the Cherry Stout brewed with local Michigan cherries.

He said that such experimentation is a reflection of the changing American palate for beer, he said. According to the Brewers Association, the craft brewing market has more than doubled over the past decade or two — growing from 2.2 percent of the market in 1994 to more than 9 percent of the market in 2007.

Meyer said that the tinkering with fruit and pumpkin ingredients is part of the craft beer movement. People with small breweries help push the boundaries of what can be called beer.

“This kind of experimentation is great,” he said. “I think it shows the flexibility of beer as a beverage.”