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Friday, June 10, 2016

The Mainstreaming of Fruit

Six years ago, Ezra Johnson-Greenough had the rather foresighted vision to launch the Portland Fruit Beer Festival. This was near the dawn of the niche fest trend, when "beer festivals" morphed into things more specific--festivals celebrating cask ale or single-hopped beer or session beers. A fruit beer fest may have been inevitable, but Ezra's, right from the start, gave us a glimpse into the future, when fruited beers would come to be seen as perfectly mainstream.

It's interesting to look back at some of the beers at that first fest in 2011. There were at least two fruit IPAs, a concept which seemed pretty mind-bending at the time. "Hops contribute far more than bitterness; they add flavor and esters, both of which are often likened to fruit," I observed at the time. "Why not take intensely hoppy beers and accentuate their hop-fruitiness with actual fruit?" Or how about Block 15's offering?
Nick Arzner's idea was to brew a pretty straightforward farmhouse ale. After his initial order of guavas failed to ripen, he found puree instead and produced a beer he felt was too flat and one-dimensional. To liven it up, he added 20-25% soured ale he'd had in a barrel for 21 months. The effect is totally misleading though; Psidium doesn't taste like a sour ale. Rather, the blended beer works with the fruit flavors to create the sense of a fruit skin astringency.
These kinds of beers are now commonplace. They're a big change from an earlier era of fruit beers, when the idea was to create something like a flavored malt beverage--a sweet, soda-like beer that would appeal to people who didn't like beer. (It was often derided in classic sexist form as "girly beer.") Ezra founded his fest to illustrate the ways in which fruit could be used to enhance a beer's native beeriness by inflecting flavors already present in it. I won't go far as to say that he sparked the current national renaissance, but he certainly anticipated it. Six years ago, the beer list seemed exotic and unusual; in the 2016 lineup, the same kinds of beers seem far more familiar. We have come to understand how fruit works in beer, and now no one thinks to denigrate it as something inferior to "real beer."

This year, the fest runs three days--today through Sunday--and has a new venue. This year it will be held in the north Park Blocks, which should be a vast improvement over the boiling asphalt postage stamp they'd been inhabiting outside Burnside Brewing the last five years. Full details here.

The taplist looks pretty spectacular, so go give it a look if you're in the mood.


  1. Do you have any thoughts about the role cider has played in the growth of fruit beer? Or vice versa? Are brewers empowered either technically or creatively by cider's use of fruits? Ezra has always included ciders in the FBF.

  2. They seem co-emergent. Cider went through a similar but hugely compressed version of the same timeline, when flavored ciders were used to reach soda-drinkers. It took almost no time before folks like you and Two Towns (Rhubarbarian was an important product) introduced people to the idea of sophisticated fruited ciders.

    Your thoughts, Nat? You've been on the front lines.

  3. Not impressed with most fruit beers. Adding grapefruit to a beer full of grapefruit flavours from the hops seems as pointless as adding coffee to a Stout. And the trend to throw any type of fruity into Gose really pisses me off. Some American brewers are totally fucking up the style. I'm sure most drinkers would turn their noses up nowadays at an authentic Gose.