The Case of the Disappearing Fruit
By DANIEL J. LEONARD
As girly as they may seem to some, fruit beers can kick your ass in the brewhouse. With few exceptions, fruit beer is among some of the most difficult styles of beer to get right, so if you have yet to sample a good example of a delicious commercial fruit beer, this is probably why. And if the pros are struggling with this style of beer, just imagine how much more of a headache brewing an incredible fruit beer is for the homebrewer.
We’ve all heard that the key to any good beer is balance, and nowhere does this hold more true than with fruit beer: the ultimate Goldilocks challenge. When it comes to fruit beer though, you might think that the biggest worry for the brewer is packing too much of a fruity punch into the beer so that it ends up tasting less like fruit beer, and more like fruit soda. But the truth is that for most of us, it’s exactly the opposite. Imagine the letdown after going through all the trouble of selecting the finest, ripest, juiciest fruit, properly preparing said fruit, and then spending the extra time and money to ferment it, only to have all of that brilliant fruit character and sweetness simply vanish. This is one of the most common and frustrating problems faced by many a brewer when set with the task of brewing a stunning fruit beer using real fruit, a problem which I affectionately refer to as 'the case of the disappearing fruit', and one that is a particular threat to the keg-challenged homebrewer who is limited to bottling only.
I’m not going to lie: If you don’t have a kegging setup, the chips are stacked against you if you’re dreaming of brewing a brilliantly balanced, appropriately sweet, fruit beer. It’s not impossible, but it’s an uphill battle and you’re going to need all the help you can get.
So let’s get to it.
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 volatile 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 most bacteria from the fruit; well that and follow proper sanitation practices like washing your cutting knife and the outside of your fruit with One Step... Basically wash whatever comes in contact with your fruit with One Step before you toss your fruit in the secondary.
You can also soak your fruit in vodka for a period of at least 10 minutes, and then strain out the vodka, which would kill most common pathogens. Just to be clear, even at a concentration of 90%, alcohol will not kill all forms of life particularly bacterial spores and therefore is not considered a sterilant.
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. 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.
Who Moved my Fruit?
If you feel you’ve added enough fruit and let it sit long enough in the fermentor, then the type of yeast you choose may be to blame in the case of the disappearing fruit. To better illustrate what I mean, here’s a short story from the archives of my brewing journal:
Once upon a time, I wanted to brew a mango fruit beer. I like mangos, they’re not as commonplace in the commercial landscape of fruit beers as say apricots and peaches are, and a mango beer just sounds too legit to quit. So I started with a pretty solid wheat beer base recipe, and took what I thought at the time was some good advice and used a “clean” California Ale Yeast to ferment my fruit beer. This particular California Ale Yeast claimed to have an attenuation rate of 73-80% (although I suspect it was at least 80%), and was also described as being “highly alcohol tolerant”. [That was the foreshadowing part of the story.]
After my wheat beer finished fermenting, I added my mango puree to the secondary and let it ferment out. I took a taste sample. Even though I knew mango can be a relatively mild fruit, I could hardly taste any of the mango’s delicious, unique fruit character, let alone any of that fructosey sweetness you’d expect from a freshly sliced mango. Liquid disappointment.
My knee jerk reaction was to add more fruit. So I did. I pureed a few more pounds of mango, and let it ferment. After fermentation wrapped up (again), I took another taste test. BARELY any additional mango character and still lacking that fruity sweetness you’d expect. I did, however, notice that the beer took on a distinct white wine character, and the alcohol presence had increased somewhat too; neither qualities I was really hoping for. Woo-hoo.
By this point, I’m pretty sure you can guess what happened: básicamente, the California Ale Yeast devoured all of the fruit sugar, taking the mango fruit character along with it, and left me with a dry, winey wheat beer with a bit too much alcohol. Thanks California Ale Yeast- you cream bag.
What’s the ethic of the story? Well, if your goal is to retain a bit more of that fruit character and corresponding sweetness, try using a less attenuative yeast like American Hefeweizen Ale Yeast, European Ale Yeast, or English Ale Yeast. Stay away from California Ale Yeast, Dry English Ale Yeast, or anything much above a 70% attenuation rate, or any yeast that’s listed as having a "high alcohol tolerance". It’s OK to use a “clean” yeast, meaning that it won’t contribute much of its own particularly strong or incompatible yeast character to the beer, but don’t sacrifice “clean” at the risk of using a more attenuative yeast.
Confessions of a Bottler...
I should tell you that I was bottling this fruit beer at the time. Why is that important? It’s important because if I were kegging, I could have had some more choices when it came to controlling the level of sweetness and fruit taste. For example, after primary fermentation was done, and just before adding the fruit, I could have cold crashed the beer, which is the practice of lowering the temperature of the beer down to about freezing for a few days. Doing this essentially slaps a red tag on the fermentation party, preventing the yeast from chowing down on every last molecule of sugar. As long as the beer was kept below 45 degrees or so, more of the yeast would fall out of suspension, becoming more or less paralyzed (or at worst VERY SLOWLY consuming the sugar), and then I could regulate the carbonation level manually with a CO2 tank in a chilled keg. If you cold crash your beer, add more fruit, then bottle, you’re asking for gushers and/or bottle bombs, and I DON’T recommend it. Cold crashing before the yeast has fully metabolized all fermentable sugars only slows down the yeast if the beer is kept at cold temperatures; the yeast can and will become more active and continue to produce CO2 at warmer temperatures.
Alternatively, I could have done what wine makers do when they want to lock in the desired level of sweetness, before their yeast totally dries out the wine, and dropped a few Campden tablets and some Potassium sorbate into the beer to put the brakes on the yeast. Again, if I were kegging, I wouldn’t be relying on the yeast to carbonate my beer (the CO2 tank would do that), therefore I wouldn’t need the yeast to be active so it wouldn’t matter if I carpet bombed those fun-guys with a little Potassium sorbate.
That’s all well and good if you’ve got a kegging setup, but what if you don’t? What if bottling is your only option and you’re right in the middle of brewing a fruit beer? Even worse, what if you just did a pre-bottling taste test only to find that your yeast decimated your fruit addition, leaving you with a sugar-free, fruit flavor-free, fruit-ish beer?
Don’t panic yet (well maybe a little bit). You still have some options, but realize you’re probably facing two separate problems that might require two separate solutions. Problem # 1: You’re missing the expected fruit flavor. Problem # 2: You’re missing the appropriate level of sweetness. Assuming that you’ve already added an appropriate amount of fruit, simply adding more fruit at this point is most likely not the solution, so don’t let the yeast fool you twice and ferment all that fruity goodness away again. Brace yourself- this is the part of the conversation where you have to take a hard look at fruit extracts and/or fruit flavorings, both of which are sugar free and add only flavor to the beer. Talking about the pluses and minuses of using fruit flavorings and extracts could easily take up another page, BUT if I were forced to condense all that down into one really long run-on sentence, it would be this: Not all fruit flavorings and extracts are created equal, so shop around, pick a couple, smell them before you buy if you can, and if do you buy a couple, pull a SAMPLE of your beer (about 10 ounces or so) and add measured amounts of the fruit flavoring with a dropper to the beer sample and TASTE IT in order to figure out the proper ratio you want BEFORE you add it to your ENTIRE batch of beer, and if you don’t like the taste of the extract/flavoring in the beer, DON’T USE IT; just bottle your beer without it. Damn that sentence had legs!
But wait, what about Problem # 2? Being that fructose, or fruit sugar, is about 1.7 times sweeter than sucrose, and is a major flavor component of fruit, you better believe you’re going to notice when it’s missing from your fruit beer if your yeast greedily scarfs it all away. But is there anything you can do to sweeten up that bone dry beer of yours without the yeast doing what it usually does with sugars? Glad you asked…
So you’ve used enough fruit and the right type of yeast, but your fruit beer still isn’t sweet enough? Obviously just adding cane or corn sugar to the beer is just going to get fermented out by the yeast, so that’s not gonna work. However, yeast does have an Achilles’ heel when it comes to sugar, and its name is lactose. Also known as milk sugar, lactose cannot be consumed by yeast (suckers), so adding between a ½ pound to a pound of lactose per 5 gallon batch at bottling will sweeten things up a bit. You can dissolve the lactose in a cup of water, boil and reduce it, cool it and then add it to your beer. Some people say that along with its semi-sweetness, lactose can add a creamy body to beer, which you may or may not want in your fruit beer, but personally, I think it’s worth the trade-off. And besides, we’re only talking about ½ a pound in 5 gallons of beer. If you’ve never had a chance to taste lactose in its dry powder form, I can tell you it’s not super sweet. In fact, lactose is about ½ as sweet as sucrose, so don’t expect your brew to turn into a sugary sweet soda beer just by adding lactose; you’d have to add A LOT to come anywhere close to that, and even then, it be more of a cream soda— (sorry, had to).
Some brewers use maltodextrine to sweeten things up, but take into account that maltodextrine is only about 1/10 as sweet as sucrose, and in brewing, it’s primarily used to add body and increase head retention. Play around with both, but as far as sweeteners are concerned, I’d go with lactose over maltodextrine any day of the week.
Another option, especially for those who are too good for lactose [lactose intolerant], would be to add some kind of unfermentable sweetener such as MonkSweet Plus (just go easy as this product is twice as sweet as table sugar).
By the way, the issue of fermented beverages becoming “too dry” and losing most or all of their sweet character is a problem that not only brewers of fruit beer face, but also both mead and cider makers too. In those circles, you hear a lot about “back sweetening”, which is a trick that’s used to sweeten a cider or mead that’s lacking in the appropriate amount of sweetness. Just like with wine makers, the yeast is neutralized, but then more cider or honey is added back to the drink to sweeten it without worry of fermentation beginning and drying the beverage out again. But then again, it’s pretty common in the cider and mead worlds to have “still” or non-carbonated beverages, whereas intentionally flat beer is more the exception, although you do come across “still beer” with some super high gravity beers (upwards of 18%). Once the yeast is neutralized in your beer, the homebrewer is left with few options if kegging isn’t one of them. If you’ve got the money, a counter pressure bottle filler would do the trick.
One last word: For my all grain brewers out there, mashing your grains at higher temperatures (154-167 F) creates less fermentable sugars for the yeast to get their grubby little hands on, but also adds some body. Sorry extract brewers, as far as the mashing schedule goes, your fate is in the hands of the manufacturers of the malt extract.
Whew. FOUR PAGES of discussing fruit beer and we’ve only just hit on one part of the many challenges with brewing this unforgiving style of beer. So why even attempt to brew this bitch of a beer without taking the kegging shortcut? The same reason people climb Everest: to prove you’re a badass, in this case with, uh, fruit beer.
[Fruit to beer ratios: Daniels, Ray. "|." Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 1996. Print.]
Still thirsty for more tips on brewing fruit beer? You are a glutton... Well, you asked for it: Tips on Brewing Fruit Beer.
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