The beer scene is a quickly flowing river these days, with many unpredictable twists and turns within its dynamic current. With trends ranging from session beers to kettle sours to whatever weed was growing in the backyard, it can be hard to keep track of who is doing what because they believe in innovation and who’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
Fruit beers have a long history, but recently breweries have used fruit to enhance the already present sweet notes in the hop and barley build of a beer, giving said beer an extra kick. “We love making fruit beers,” explains Abita’s brewmaster Mark Wilson. “It’s one of the things we’re known for. We want to use as much local produce as possible and we just want the fruit to enhance the flavor so you know you’re drinking beer.” Abita, New Orleans’ 31-year-old brewery, brews some well-known fruity beers, like the raspberry-infused Purple Haze and their spring seasonal Strawberry Lager.
While grapefruit and orange IPAs are all the rage today, and cherry and raspberry sours are regular one-offs around the country, Abita has been brewing with strawberries, peaches, and oranges for decades. We talked with Wilson about getting fruity.
Paste: What inspired the Strawberry Lager at Abita?
Mark Wilson: It’s part of our Harvest series of beers where we’re using locally sourced produce. Not only do we do Strawberry Lager (which was the first in the series, started in 2006), we also do Blueberry Wheat, Peach Lager, and then Sweet Orange Lager.
There is a large strawberry growing region about 20 miles west of our brewery. Strawberries are harvested in the early spring and it’s a perfect match. Our brewery was based on the concept of making beers that complement the culture and cuisine of south Louisiana, and the strawberry beer really sits well with that. It goes well with crawfish boils and things of that nature.
Paste: What’s your technique for adding strawberries into the beer?
MW: The berries are pressed into juice. Then we take that sweet juice and add it into the brite beer tank and mix it there. It doesn’t go through the fermentation process so you get all the sweetness and the flavor from the juice.
Paste: Everyone has a different process with fruit beers. Why did you choose this method?
MW: You’re getting the most of the fruit flavor. It mixes with the beer, but you get all the sweetness and the aroma.
Paste: What are you looking for when you blend?
MW: We do quite a few fruit beers. What we’re looking for is to have the aroma and the flavor of the fruit come through, but to also know that you’re drinking a beer. It has to have the consistencies and flavor of beer. If you add too much juice, like if you’ve had a kriek, it’s a whole different apple. It’s so overwhelming with fruit that you don’t really know you’re drinking a beer. They’re great, but we want you to know you’re drinking a beer—that the flavors from the fruit are complementary and not overpowering.
Wheat is in most of our fruit beers because it gives more body and adds an element that pairs well with fruit.
Paste: What are some of the logistical challenges in working with fruit?
MW: It’s very labor intensive. With the strawberries we have to press them into juice, store that juice, then bring it to the brewery and add it. It is a lot of manpower to deal with the amount of fruit you deal with.
We do all of our beers differently. The blueberry wheat is done in a similar manner in that we add berry juice to the brite beer tank, but for the peach beer, we cut up fresh peaches and add them in the brewhouse so we get a lot of that flavor on the backside, then add more fruit into the brite beer tank as well. The same thing when we do our Sweet Orange Lager—that has fruit added in the brewhouse because we get a lot of flavor from the peels and the fruit itself.
Paste: Do you think the average consumer understands the extra labor?
MW: I’m not sure. We describe the process, but I think some people really want to know and other people just don’t think about it.
We want to use local produce. One of the reasons there is so much flavor is because it’s locally sourced juice. It’s not in drums or totes; it’s stored in buckets. We pour the buckets in, clean them, reuse them, and actually go to the area where we’re pressing the berries and fill them. It’s great to see everything from the farm through the process.
Paste: Are there challenges in making larger amounts as you’ve grown?
MW: It hasn’t changed the process, we just do it in larger volumes.
Paste: You haven’t outgrown the farm or anything like that?
MW: This is a growing region so there’s plenty. We just need to let them know…If there are weather issues, sometimes we have to get from more farms in the area. We just have to work around it.
It’s really important for the berries to be overripe for juicing because you want it to be as sweet as possible, not the perfect looking berries you would buy in a grocery store.
Paste: Has weather ever changed your plans?
MW: If you get a late cold snap it will cause a delay…or you get a rain and you have to wait for the berries to absorb that moisture. We’ve never had any instances where there’s a problem with securing them. We just have to wait another week.
Paste: Fruit beers are more of a trend right now. What jumps out to you about their use in the larger beer scene?
MW: The craft beer trend started 30 years ago and there was no definition about what has to be in beer or what can’t be. Adding fruit is a natural component. People are looking to make better beer and if fruit enhances that flavor, that’s great. For us, especially with our Harvest line, we think they’re a great addition to the beer.
Paste: Do you think, industry-wide, it’s more for enhancement or does it turn into a gimmick?
MW: I can’t speak for what other people are doing.
A lot of the flavors from the main ingredients of beer (hops, barley and year) have a fruity essence to begin with. A lot of hops have citrus flavors so people add grapefruit or orange as a natural enhancement.
The beers we’re doing are similar to the season. Strawberries are harvested in spring, blueberries are summer, peaches are late summer/early fall and citrus is harvested in the winter.
We try to make beers we think are good and that people will like and that fit with the culture of Louisiana. Then we try to export that to the rest of the country.