When I started getting curious about beer, my more beer-knowledgeable friends nearly always had something derisive to say about “fruit beer.”
Back then, the trend was ever-increasing bitterness, ever-climbing alcohol content and ever-more-extreme flavors and treatments, like barrel aging in different spirit bottles and re-creating insane ancient recipes. To compound this, when the faux-craft beer “Blue Moon,” made by Miller Brewing Co., made its debut, bartenders were instructed to always serve it with an orange hanging out of it, making it both conspicuous and drawing the ire of beer purists.
There were a handful of craft breweries at the time making fruit beer, but most seemed to be simply created as an alternative to the extreme beer found everywhere else. Thus, my beer snob brethren thought that fruited beers were for people who couldn’t muster a real love for beer – and, worse, those who enjoyed drinking them were too weak or girly. At the height of this anti-fruit fervor at the time, I moved from New Hampshire to Maine and found several beers that used blueberries in their brew and became curious to try them.
I sheepishly purchased a Sea Dog Blueberry Wheat six-pack at a convenience store and checked both ways to make sure no real beer geeks were watching me as I paid for the maligned brew. When I took my first sips back then, I was elated. Finally, something that was not harsh in its presentation. The aroma was sweet and soft. The beer poured – to my surprise, at the time – a pale straw color instead of blue, and I enjoyed its novel flavor. I tried several more from other breweries, including my favorite back then, the now-defunct Bass Ackwards Berryblue Ale from Sebago Brewing Co., that shook things up by putting the blueberries into a different part of the brewing process than many of their cohorts, resulting in a more tart and less sweet concoction.
As much as I enjoyed these beers, I still had a hard time selling them to others. The problem was their sweetness and, after a while, the one-note nature of the brews. The most common way for brewers to make them was to create a very light-tasting ale and then put blueberries (or blueberry flavoring) in it. Have too many of any of them, and it starts to taste like you’ve just added a little dose of blueberry flavoring to a thin base. At best, it tasted like an interesting dessert, and at worst, it sometimes resembled a sweet, slightly boozy soda. Over the years, a few holdouts kept brewing them, and brewpubs might have one on for a summer month or two, but blueberry beer never really reached a mainstream appeal, and I continued to hear people say how much they hated them.
Since then, the extreme beer craze has come and gone, and brewers’ style portfolios have expanded dramatically. Because blueberries are a staple of Maine’s food, history and culture, it was only natural that the newest brewers might take a stab at blueberry beer again, and I’ve started to notice them reappearing. Recent examples are beginning to break out of the old-school model for fruit beer and trying to apply the fruit in different ways and radically different styles.
Sometimes, it is as simple as changing up the base beer that gets partnered with the blueberries. Take Dirigo Brewing Co.’s Champagne du Maine. Recently released in a limited batch of cans, the base beer for this is Dirigo’s tart Berliner weiss. The sweetness and blueberry flavor is not an unwelcome addition and plays well with what is going on in the low-alcohol brew. The sweet/tart feel (and its beautiful color) gives the beer greater complexity, because the base beer itself is contributing to the finished taste, rather than being a neutral base onto which flavor can be added.
Another way to give the blueberries new ways to shine is by adding a little time and age. Allagash Brewing Co. makes its Little Sal by starting with a sour red ale and adding wild low-bush blueberries to the beer. Then it’s stored in red wine barrels for at least six months, with the hopes that it will pick up a unique flavor profile from the wood of the barrel and the dregs of the wine.
As we are reaching the time of the annual blueberry harvest, be on the lookout for a wave of new – and different – blueberry-centric beers on their way. If the old-school sweetness turned you off, it may be time to have another try.