Think of a fruit, any fruit you might encounter — in the produce aisle, at a juice bar, piled high in Chinatown. Well, a beer has probably been brewed with it, and almost definitely compared to it. German hefeweizens smell like bananas, and certain Belgian ales like plums; starfruit, jackfruit and “fruit smoothie” have been detected (or at least imagined) by beer geeks. Who among us is innocent? Not I, who have inhaled the musk of overripe pineapple and have even used what might be the most embarrassing phrase of all, written but never spoken: “hints of stone fruit.”
There’s one descriptor, however, that requires no apology, especially at this time of year: “citrusy.” It’s too synonymous with refreshment — and with America’s craft-beer darling, the India pale ale — for anyone to complain. (“Tart” is also having a moment, thanks to the rise of German- and Belgian-inspired sour beers.) So you might be glad, as I am, that it has seemingly never been easier to find creative beers that incorporate actual citrus. The usual suspects (lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit) and more exotic ones (blood oranges, yuzu and beyond) are finding their way into craft beer with admirable regularity and equally admirable results.
Brewing with citrus isn’t new: The Belgian-style wheat ales known as witbiers, for instance (the most popular of which is Blue Moon), traditionally are made with orange peel. Neither are the citrusy qualities of beers such as pale ales and IPAs, in which flavor and aroma hops — strains of the pinecone-shaped flowers made juicy and pungent by rigorous selective breeding — contribute orange and grapefruit notes. But younger brewers, especially, not to mention trendy ones at places such as Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery, Colorado’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Westbrook Brewing of South Carolina, are using citrus in less typical ways, from fermenting IPAs with fruit puree to adding orange zest to intense, chocolaty stouts.
As Mike McGarvey, chief executive and head brewer of Washington’s 3 Stars Brewing, points out, this sort of play is consistent with the beer world’s interest in ever-greater experimentation and with the growing popularity of fruit beers in general. “Fruit beers have historically had a lot of stigma; it’s almost been considered a girly thing,” McGarvey says. “But when you look at breweries like us — I’ve heard people use the term ‘third-wave’ brewers — we don’t always look at history or whether something will be perceived as masculine. We look at the flavor.”
In addition to his flagship saison, an example of the Belgian style perfumed with Citra hops and fresh lemon peel, McGarvey collaborated with Pizzeria Paradiso on a saison called Paradiso: the Moon, brewed with sour Seville oranges. It was the first in a series of beers inspired by the poet Dante Alighieri; the second installment, Mercury, contains blood oranges and was released last week. McGarvey adds that 3 Stars has also brewed a citrus-oriented collaboration with the Japanese restaurant Daikaya, enlivened by citrusy Japanese sansho peppercorns and yuzu fruit.
A contrasting approach to these lighter, more thirst-quenching citrus beers has been on display at Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore, where Stephen Jones of Oliver Breweries re-brewed a double India pale ale called the Big D, to which he adds orange and lemon peels and orange-blossom honey. Still, he says, his goal was for all of the components — malt, citrus, a relatively high alcohol content — to work together harmoniously, not surprise customers with their boldness. “I’m a big fan of subtlety in beers rather than being slapped in the face with particular flavors,” he says.
But a slap in the face, if executed well, can be a good thing: I had just such an experience when I recently tried the Key Lime IPA from Florida’s Cigar City Brewing. The setting was a tasting event at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan during the week of the Savor craft beer festival, and the beer was one of the most remarkable I tried that week. Vibrant lime and piña colada-like aromas gave way to mellow lime zest, all of it anchoring the most pungent, oily citrus character I’ve experienced in a beer.
Maybe I should have anticipated the home run: Cigar City head brewer Wayne Wambles lives, after all, in the land of Tropicana and Key lime pie and has experimented not only with the usual peels and juices but also with aging beer on lemon and grapefruit wood. “The hops lend pineapple, mango, grapefruit and orange notes,” he says. “Those things are already there, so when you throw the lime in, it’s like adding the dressing to this fruit salad.”
“Fruit salad.” It sure beats “stone fruit,” but maybe, this summer, I’ll stick with “citrusy.”
Fromson is the author of the e-book “Finding Shakespeare,” published by the Atavist, and a Web copy editor at the New Yorker.