Is fruit Lager just good beer ruined? I think of Lager as being a robust kind of beer that can hold its own. A good Pilsner is like being internally exfoliated by the shaft of a giant turkey baster – it can be that cleansing and life-affirming. The first cold charge on the tongue is as refreshing as the last draining of the glass, and the beer in terms of character or nuance doesn’t really develop – it’s not brewed to.
In this post, for reasons of simplicity, I’m using Lager as a shortcut for just the pale Pilsner variety as it seems to get targeted the most.
A local Hertfordshire brewery makes a house beer for a pub in St Albans. It’s a Pilsner with Seville oranges included. I love the base of their beer – their regular Pilsner. I had a glass of the Seville version last year and was deflated. I had it again recently as I’ll give any beer the benefit of the doubt. This time the experience was even more disappointing than the first – a bunny hop rather than a leap and I think I know why: I had it in the midst of this heat wave and needed the refreshment of a crystalline Pilsner. Instead, it was a mildly tingling orange squash. Not horrible, just mugged of its potential. The desiccating cut of Lager – that most oxymoronic term of refreshment – was obscured.
But that was just that particular beer. After all – one of the most refreshing beers complemented by one of the most refreshing fruits must be refreshment squared, right?
The same pub had another Lager on keg – this time infused with mandarin orange (I forget the brewery). It was another Lager not enhanced but severely compromised – a faded imprint of the beer it should have been. I tried to suck the Lager through the fruit ego but only got more mandarin id.
I’m not sure how many citrus Lagers I’ve had but I’ve not yet had one that has been as refreshing as Lager left to be itself.
So why is Lager so easily put on its back by the addition of fruit? How is it the naked brute force of a carbonated Pilsner submits without struggle to orange zest? The Lager turns from a bark into a trill. Just as oil from our own pores makes the head on a glass of beer dissipate, so citrus fruit completely neutralises a Lager. So maybe it’s in the fruit oil. Maybe also it’s a characteristic of the beer style itself.
Lagers and sours share some basic attributes: neither has a complex flavour structure that evolves with each sip; both styles drink levelly and consistently.
At the end of the glass, still, un-fruited sours leave a slight burn and an impression like having looked too long into the sun. A sour is a style that was born to go with fruit like plain white yoghurt, and has a long tradition of so doing across Europe. The dairy analogy is something that has crossed my mind (and others’) many times and shares proper stock with its analog: plain yoghurt and sharp, tangy oils from the fruit work well because they contrast the acridity without blanking it out – a Muller’s fruit corner without all the added sugar!
And what of the Saison? It too has been interfered with but in most cases, the astringent rotting apples and hay dimension usually manages to cut through whatever has been added.
A Brett beer stands apart. The Brettanomyces thingius is like a smoking cloud from the bore left by a Quadrilla fracking probe or a bath of sulphuric acid; plop some tangerine segments in to hear them dissolve if you wish. Brett beer can be caustic and often gives me heartburn, so fruit can often mellow it out. I recently had a gooseberry Brett beer that gave this effect: the gooseberry sourness was rendered sweet in companionship! That combination worked for me.
The pints of bitter, pale or golden ale that churn out during the summer months can be given an uplift with the addition of citrus fruit. Oliver’s Island is an example. They’re usually malty enough to carry it. Likewise, peel is often added to Wits and wheat beers and can enhance them.
Recently though, the style most susceptible to being fruit infused (in contrast to beers like Belgian Krieks that have been associated with fruit for a long time) is the IPA, DIPA or RYPA. The impact of adding fruit is more difficult to gauge what with the sumptuous humulone gores and juice bombs; it’s hard to know where the new world hops end and the fruits begin – especially as the former reflects the exotic taste profiles of the latter.
But back to my problem with Lager.
I’m not someone who fully shuts the door on anything so I decided, as a way of rounding up, to eat some fruit whilst drinking Lager. It’s not the same as brewing beer with fruit but I can get a feel for it. First, I tried a bottle of Pilsner Urquell with a naval orange. The problem is the juice laminates the palate and forms a kind of hermetic seal against the Lager.
So oranges seem to overwhelm Lager but what of other bounty? Maybe we just need to widen our horizons, so I tried a few more possibilities: I found conference pear doesn’t work – the beer effaces it. Apricot: seems to pair well and if this does – then peach might too. Tomato and Pilsner is too reminiscent of food that’s been regurgitated. Unripe banana when it’s green and celery-like was the best match I found.
Whichever fruit is used, I think it needs to be one that doesn’t bleed copiously so possibly and counter-intuitively, suspects like strawberry, mango, cherry or fig might work too.
Despite all the misses, I’m still grateful for the amount of experimentation going on with beer and fruit even if many styles don’t suit it. I remain an optimist that this process of trial and error gradually leads us into the light and the knowledge of what works.