Farmer’s markets are finally up and running here in the northeast, but things aren’t fully swinging yet. There’s still a few weeks to go before the first Wait, What The Hell Am I Going To Do With $48 Worth Of Strawberries?! day of the season; for now we’re just all milling about shrugging at bars of olive-oil bath soap and buying hothouse cucumbers, last year’s apples, maybe some locally jerkied beef.
The good stuff doesn’t show up for a while yet, which means we’ve got time to prepare our palates for the shock of real, live, fresh fruit by ingesting nature’s candy in its finest form: beer.
I held a dumb grudge against fruit beer for way too many years, and I’m just now starting to drink up for lost time. My aversion was based on a shred or two of solid evidence, for in the early days of my education, far too many fruit beers were indeed goofy, syrupy disasters. The best ones tasted like gummy bears dissolved in Miller Lite, which, I know, sounds all right. But the majority were a step or two below that, more along the lines of expired frozen margarita mix dumped into a vat of Keystone. But things have been better for several years now; here are eight of the best fruit beers I’ve come across lately in my attempt to get up to speed.
New Belgium Heavy Melon
First, a note on packaging. I’m a can-over-bottle advocate in general, though I do think we bloggers sometimes overstate the case. Increased demand has led to a can shortage, which has led to some shoddy workmanship in the start-up aluminum tube racket; I’ve bought a few too many $14 four-packs with visibly raised seams in the past year. And no good brewers use clear or even green glass anymore, so metal’s light-blocking benefits aren’t as pronounced as they used to be (brown bottles do the trick just fine). That said, I still generally prefer cans to bottles … unless the bottles are dope as hell, such as the funky little bullets New Belgium uses.
Oh yeah and this watermelon-lime beer is so damn good, too, 100 times better than I expected when I unpacked the sample box. It’s made with real melons, which provides honest flavor that seems subtle compared to the sugary, goosed-up extract taste that mars many melon brews. It’s sweet for sure, but the lime adds a welcome tang in the background, and the 5 percent ABV is perfect for this class of beer.
Deschutes Hop Slice
This is another sample I was a bit wary of, despite my near total faith in Deschutes. But a session IPA brewed with Meyer lemon has the potential to be a half-assed, double-barreled trend chaser looking to cash in on the marketplace’s twin obsessions this summer: session IPA (for the third year running), and tossing citrus into whatever beer will bear it. Not the case! Hop Slice tastes much fuller and rounder than its 4.5 ABV might suggest, with tart lemon offset by orange, pine, and grapefruit.
Cambridge Brewing Peaches En Regalia
The best day of my very good May was spent on Cambridge Brewing Company’s patio, drinking my way through the portfolio of special beers they rolled out for their 27th birthday party on the 14th. I might be biased by my proximity (CBC is a few blocks down the road), but then again I hate the rest of my neighbors and have no great love for any of the dozen Dunkin Donuts franchises visible from my porch. No, I think Cambridge Brewing Company just happens to be in the very top tier of American brewing, and Peaches En Regalia is one of their finest offerings: a 6-percent ABV wild ale aged with peaches in wine barrels: tart and complex but definitively peachy, and remarkably consistent given how finicky both peaches and barrels can be.
One of my favorite things about Cambridge Brewing is that all of their beers are accessibly priced, at least in the eye of this wallet-holder. Allagash, one of my other favorite breweries, is pretty damn expensive across the board. But I’ll still happily pay $15 for a 375-milliliter bottle of this oak-and-strawberry aged strong ale whenever I come across it. At 9.5-percent ABV, it offers wine-like strength, which makes the price easier to swallow, as does the flavor: bourbon and strawberries, honey and earth, vanilla and sunshine.
Emboldened by the runaway success of their 15-packs of All Day IPA, Founders is trying to overcome the notorious promiscuity of the craft beer drinker by offering even some of their higher-end beers in large formats. You can now buy 12-packs of their 8.5-percent ABV Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, and Rubaeus, their year-round raspberry stunner, suddenly comes nine cans to the box. Sure, I like variety, but I also like the idea of owning nine of these fruit-forward, sweet-tart, deep red beauties.
This perfect blend of old and young Flemish brown ales with kriek (Belgian cherry beer) is produced in Belgium by Liefmans, which, like Ommegang, is owned by Duvel-Moortgat. Hooray for “partnerships” or “consolidations” or “sell-outs” or whatever you want to call the market forces that allowed Ommegang to produce brewmaster Phil Leinhart’s recipe in a more suitable climate and with the proper equipment. At a very reasonable $10.99 per 4-pack, Rosetta is a great introduction to traditionally made sour fruit beers.
Starr Hill Sublime Citrus Wit
This brand-new 4.7-percent ABV wheat beer combines typical Belgian yeast characteristics with bright lemon and lime that add an extra layer of flavor and complexity. Sublime is eminently chuggable despite having a lot going on, making it a logical next step for anyone who’s grown bored by one-note packaged shandies.
Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA
Samuel Adams has fallen out of favor in beer geek circles, and while some of that is garden-variety too-coolness, parent company Boston Beer hasn’t helped its reputation by leaning so heavily on its Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea brands, to say nothing of the new spiked seltzer they’re about to spring on us. But none of that means Sam Adams isn’t capable of putting out very good beer, and I find the citrus rendition of their Rebel IPA line to be as good as any of the other 500 grapefruit IPAs I’ve tried in 2016. It’s 6.3-percent ABV, resolutely grapefruity, balanced toward the tart side, and a buck a beer cheaper than category behemoth Grapefruit Sculpin.