The three most common reasons for fruit beer lacking in both fruity sweetness and fruit flavor are:
1. Adding fruit to the boil.
2. Not using enough fruit.
3. Use of an overly aggressive yeast.
Let’s attack these different problems individually, going after the easiest, low hanging fruit first (you know you love it). If you’re adding fruit to the boil, stop. Not only are you wasting money by boiling off fruit aromatics and flavor, you’re also increasing the levels of pectin in your beer, which leads to an even more cloudy looking beer. Moreover, when you boil fruit, you change the fruits character, usually muting the fruits taste and aroma, often making the fruit taste blah. If you’re worried about infecting your beer with whatever bacteria that might be on the fruit, simply add the fruit to a secondary fermentation where the alcohol presence from the beer will generally kill off any possible bacteria from the fruit.
The next easiest potential problem to remedy is “not using enough fruit”. In order to achieve the right amount of a specific fruit’s character, it pays to remember that some fruits are more assertive than others. For example, raspberries are more assertive than strawberries, cherries more assertive than blueberries, and citrus fruits are more assertive than melons. To that end, veteran beer educator Ray Daniels provides some helpful data in his book Designing Great Beers that can be used as a general baseline when adding a certain type of fruit to your brew. 1 I definitely recommend Daniels’ book as a reference for brewing most beer styles out there, but in the meantime, the general “fruit-to-beer ratios” are:
Cherry: 2.00 lb./gal.
Strawberry: 1.80 lb./gal.
Mango: 1.60 lb./gal.
Raspberry: 1.32 lb./gal.
Blackberry: 1.00 lb./gal.
Maraschino Cherries: 1.00 lb./gal.
Passion Fruit: 0.80 lb./gal.
Depending on the style of base beer you’re brewing, you may need to increase these ratios in order to properly showcase the fruit that you want to shine through. By the way, all of the numbers above came from 2nd Round Beers from past NHC entries. I should mention, however, that with the exception of the Raspberry figure above, the rest of these ratios were averages that came from only 1 to 2 examples. Raspberry was the most common fruit used, with seven 2nd Round entries, but still, at best we’re only talking about a sample size of 7 beers. In other words, it’s not as if hundreds of great fruit beers were sampled and you’re getting a set of well-established, tried and true standard numbers. The take away? Use these figures as a general reference point, and experiment.
Then, of course, you have to ask yourself if you’re allowing enough time for the beer to be in contact with the fruit in order to pick up enough of that fruit’s character. One to two weeks is pretty standard, though I know of brewers who let the beer sit on the fruit for four to six weeks. You will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, so six weeks is probably the max I’d go, but, again, experiment.
But simply adding the right amount of fruit to your beer won’t be enough to ensure a successful fruit beer. From my experience, producing a great fruit beer all comes down to the most important five letter word in brewing: yeast.