If there was a Beer Buzzword Of 2018 award, I’d probably present it to “juicy.” Lately, brewers and drinkers alike can’t get enough of beers that taste like oranges, mangoes, pineapples, and the like. And thanks to hop breeding programs that have grown hops with exactly those fruity flavors, tropically inspired beers are all the rage this summer. It’s not just beachfront breweries producing them either; tropical vibes rule pint glasses from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
It’s now common practice for breweries to add fruit (or fruit purees or fruit extracts) to their beers, and an orange peel pale ale or mango sour beer doesn’t exactly rock the boat anymore. What can brewers do to stand out? They’re taking tropical inspiration and running with it in wild new directions. They’re using specific hops to create fruity flavors, to the point where drinkers have to ask whether a beer really isn’t brewed with mango or pineapple. New ways of using yeast are also helping drive these sunny flavors, mingling with hops for a result greater than the sum of its parts. Oh, and if you’d like a beer that tastes like a pina colada or coconut-lime custard pie, brewers have you covered, too. Here are just a few of the ways they’re sending your beer on an island vacation this summer.
The fruity power of yeast
Ever had a hefeweizen? You probably remember it tasting a little bit like bananas. That’s a product of the yeast, which produces banana-flavored compounds, called esters, even though there’s no banana in the beer.
Similarly, brewers are realizing that other types of yeast can also produce fruit flavors—no fruit required. Chicago’s Marz Community Brewing worked with a local yeast lab, Omega Yeast, to create a custom yeast blend that adds banana and other fruit notes to their beers. Marz brewers realized they didn’t even need to chase the fanciest, most fruity hops in order to give their beers a tropical leaning.
“Some of these new yeasts really fill in between the hop flavors,” cofounder and head brewer Tim Lange tells The Takeout. “The combination of all of these new hops and the yeast together is helping to expand this tropical genre and these beers.”
Likewise at San Diego, California-based Ballast Point Brewing (owned by Constellation Brands), which recently introduced a new variant of its popular Sculpin IPA called Aloha Sculpin. It’s not brewed with pineapple, as the name might imply, but with a yeast strain called Brux Trois that supplies its fruity notes and slightly more rounded texture.
“We played around with this weird new yeast strain that made all these beautiful, tropical flavors. We put it on tap and the beer was gone before we knew it,” says Ballast Point’s director of quality Lauren Zeidler. “We had this collective lightbulb go off that this yeast makes so many amazing tropical flavors and this could be a great pair for some of the best attributes of the base Sculpin.”
All the juiciest hops
Hop varieties like Citra, Galaxy, and Mosaic—the kind that produce big citrus, mango, and passionfruit aromas and flavors—have only been available to brewers for about ten years (in fact, Mosaic wasn’t introduced until 2012). As the supplies of these hops and others like them have increased, brewers are realizing that the hops can actually take the place of fruit in certain styles, like IPAs. Ten years ago, a brewery might have added grapefruit peel or lime zest to an IPA; now, the hops can do that for them.
Exhibit A: Escondido, California-based Stone Brewing’s senior manager of brewing and innovation Steve Gonzalez tells The Takeout one of the brewery’s latest IPAs, Scorpion Bowl, was actually intended to have fruit in it. It just so happened that he grabbed a drink of the beer before the fruit was added, though, and was blown away by how much fruit flavor was already there thanks to a combination of Loral and Mandarina Bavaria hops. He passed the beer around the brewery, and everyone agreed there was no need to even go forward with the fruit addition.
Stone also brews an unfruited version of its popular Tangerine Express IPA, but only around the Richmond, Virginia area. Gonzalez said that—despite being Stone’s “hop guy” for about six years now—it made him pause. “I was like, ‘Are you sure the tangerine isn’t in here yet?’”
Beachy culinary inspiration
Often, the ideas for some of the most innovative tropical beers don’t come from the beer world, but from the food and cocktail world. Take a beer called The Supremity of Being, a Berliner weisse-style sour beer brewed with vanilla, macadamia and coconut by Asheville, North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. The hook came from a coconut custard pie the team ate at New Orleans restaurant Herbsaint; they figured a tart, citrusy Berliner weisse would be the perfect base to layer on the coconut flavors.
“The way we like to approach those dessert beers is to not make it over the top sweet; we like to maintain the fact that it’s a beer,” says Burial’s co-owner and head brewer Tim Gormley. “So in this beer, the macadamia is the boldest of the flavors, then vanilla pairs well with the nuttiness and the coconut, too.”
Aside from tropical desserts, umbrella-garnished cocktails are also turning brewers’ gears. Stone’s Scorpion Bowl was inspired by—what else?—the Scorpion Bowl cocktail, a tiki classic. And in Purcellville, Virginia, a brewery called Adroit Theory has been making waves with its luau-appropriate beers, including a German wheat beer style called a gose brewed with Ferrero Rocher chocolates and coconut, a riff on a Bailey’s and banana pina colada. The hardest part says owner Mark Osborne, was unwrapping the individual chocolates (they’d bought 20 Costco boxes’ worth). The second hardest part was getting over the beer’s appearance: “We’re like ‘This tastes delicious.’ The problem is it was just so ugly, I can’t even describe it,” he tells me. “It looks like if you were on a cruise ship and you found someone’s pina colada from the day before in a little plastic cup. Guess what though? We sold out of the beer in record time.”
For Marz Brewing, cocktail inspiration came full circle when the brewery teamed up with Chicago tiki bar Lost Lake on a beer called Piranhanas, a tropical pale ale. The beer stands on its own, but Lost Lake has also found success pairing it as a beer back for rum and incorporating it in cocktails.
Fruit, but not the way you think
Actual fruit does still have its place in tropical beers, but in new ways. Rather than just adding puree or peel to a beer, some brewers are experimenting with more subtle methods for incorporating fruit.
Asheville breweries Burial and One World collaborated recently on an IPA fermented with a type of yeast called Brettanomyces, often referred to as a “wild” yeast that lends fruity, funky, rustic notes to a beer. Instead of adding fruit to the IPA, they replaced all the regular water they would have used for brewing that beer with a pineapple- and lemongrass-infused water they made themselves. Since the Brettanomyces yeast itself produces pineappley flavors, brewer Tim Gormley says it was an effective way to double-down on that fruit without actually adding it to the beer.
He’s also used pineapple juice another way. Some beers undergo a process called bottle conditioning where a bit of extra sugar is added to a bottle for the yeast to chomp on while the beer ages. It helps the yeast continue to develop flavors and produce carbonation. Most brewers use a simple dextrose sugar for bottle conditioning because it’s easy to wrangle and to predict how much sugar the yeast will need. But Gormley’s swapped pineapple juice for dextrose for some of his bottle-conditioned beers, adding an extra layer of fruit.
“The yeast gives you a little bit of pineapple flavor and we try to gear the hops that way too,” he said. “So the extra pineapple in the bottle really helps nudge it that fruity way.”