MOVIES & BOOZE: Fruity beers for St. Patrick's weekend

Dean McGuinness, the Beer Messiah, reviews Mescan Red Tripel, Widmer Bros Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout and Bush de Nuits

There are some terms that people use to describe beers that are commonly used – mainly because they are general terms that apply to lots of beers.  Some of them simply refer to ingredients – for example, ‘malty’, ‘hoppy’.  Some may refer to an ingredient or they may refer to a flavour that is coming from somewhere else.  Today, we are going to look at one of those ‘general’ flavours that come up regularly – ‘fruity’.

The beers that we are tasting today have fruit flavours coming from different places.  We couldn’t do beers on the day before Paddy’s Day without having an Irish beer, so our first beer is named after St. Patrick’s own personal brewer.  Mescan Red Tripel is a dark Belgian tripel from Mescan Brewery, which is located in the foothills of Croagh Patrick.  Bush de Nuits is a strong Belgian speciality that is aged in George St. Nuit red wine barrels..  Finally, Widmer Bros Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout is a beer whose style suggest would not normally be fruity, but with the addition of raspberry juice, the flavour is given an interesting twist.

Where does the fruit come from?

When it comes to tasting wine, it is usually fairly safe (if not very helpful) to say that a wine is ‘fruity’.  The base ingredient for a wine is the grape, and the juice from this grape is fermented to give a drink containing alcohol.  If the wine taster is getting a bit more specific, they might specify the type of fruit flavour that they get from the wine – and usually the fruit referred to is not ‘white grape’ or ‘red grape’.  More often, it will be ‘raspberry, ‘cherry’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘gooseberry’ or any number of other flavours that are not the fruit used to make the wine.  Either the original grape has elements of this flavour integrated into its essence, or the flavour in the grape is changed during the fermenting / wine-making process.

With beer it is a little bit more complicated.  In most instances, no fruit is used in beer (with ‘fruit beers’ being the obvious exception).  Yet, with many beers, the term ‘fruity’ will be used to describe the flavour of the beer.  Where does this fruit flavour come from?

I have come up with ten different ways that a beer can find itself having a fruity flavour, or where the drinker might perceive a fruity flavour.  We will quickly go through each one in turn below, but first a little bit about what fruit flavour is.  Time to get geeky!

All flavours can be broken down to identify the specific substance that is responsible for giving this flavour.  The family of substances that form the backbone of ‘fruity’ flavours are called ‘esters’.  When the white coats refer to these flavours, they are words that end in ‘-ate’ – from the point of view of normal people, the flavour is referred to as the fruit that it tastes like.  So ‘isoamyl acetate’ is ‘ripe banana’  and ‘ethyl hexanoate’ is ‘red apple’ to most ‘normal’ people.  However, what something is, and how people perceive it are not always the same thing.  One person might taste a beer and perceive the flavour as being fruity, while another might perceive that flavour as something else.  As a general rule, most ‘esters’ are perceived as being fruity by the vast majority of people.  However, some other flavours may be perceived as fruity by some, and as something else by others.  Confusing, or what?  For the most part, we will focus on the flavours that people see as ‘fruity’ most all of the time, but also give a nod in the direction of other flavours that might be perceived as some as ‘fruity.

Now, back to the ten sources of fruit flavours.  When people do perceive a fruit flavour in a beer, the chances are that it has come from one of the following sources –

  1. Macerated Fruit – we will start with the easy ones. Some beers – for example fruit lambics – involve macerating fruit in the beer, usually after fermentation, and often after the beer has conditioned for some time.  The acidity of the beer dissolves and absorbs the pulp of the fruit into the beer, and the result is for this fruit flavour to become a key flavour constituent of the beer.  This can be quite expensive, so if you really like great quality fruit beers, be prepared to pay that little bit more.
  2. Fruit juices or fruit pulp – just as natural as the first step, fruit juices, pulp or some other form of natural fruit-derived ingredient are sometimes added to make a fruit beer. One brewer that I spoke to would add natural apricot jam to his beer to get a dollop of apricot flavour in his beer.  Again, this only applies to ‘fruit beers’ – there are many other beers that can have these flavours without the addition of fruit, and the flavour can be derived from a totally natural process.
  3. Ale fermentations – ale yeasts are most often associated with fruity flavours. Ale yeasts like to ferment at warmer temperatures, and the yeast itself multiplies to quite a considerable extent during fermentation.  The result can be (not always) a range of fruity flavours resulting from the sugar in the wort generating fruit flavours in parallel with the alcohol and carbon dioxide that is generated.  Note – not all ales have fruity flavours.  Wiith some ales, other sources of flavour are more dominant.  For example, stouts tend to be more malty, and fruit flavours are less evident, if not perceptible at all.
  4. ‘Hybrid’ Fermentations – styles such as ‘California Common’ and ‘Kolsch’ are a bit quirky. While the former is made with lager yeast, the fermentation is executed at warmer temperatures.  The latter of these styles is an ale, but is fermented cooler.  These temperatures are important – they result in fruity flavours, but fruit flavours that are more subdued.
  5. Late Hopping – the flavour most commonly associated with hops is ‘bitter’. However, this comes from hops added early in the boil.  When hops are added late in the boil, essential oils in the hops can infuse as hop flavour into the beer.  This can be an array of flavours, but citrus (and pine) or tropical fruit are a good example of flavours that are associated with American hops, and are common in American IPA’s.
  6. Dry hopping – similar to late hopping, but the hops are added into the beer after fermentation when the beer is cold. Hop essential oils infuse into the beer to give flavour which may be fruit.
  7. Herb/Spice additions – sometimes beers are brewed with herbs or spices added to the beer in the brewing process. Some of these additions can either be fruit-based ingredients, and sometimes the herb or spice can have a flavour that is perceived as fruity.  A classic example is witbier that often has coriander and curacao as ingredients.  Coriander is often perceived as tasting of citrus fruits.  Curacao is dried orange peel (think Cointreau or Tripel Sec – spirits), and tastes (surprisingly) of dried / bitter orange.
  8. Fruit-Flavour Infusion from Barrels – in some cases, beer can be aged in oak barrels. If this barrel had a fruit-based alcohol resident in it before (red or white wine, port, sherry), the result can be that the flavour of the previous resident of the barrel can infuse into the beer during the barrel aging process.
  9. Quirky flavours that are perceived as fruity (sometimes) – some flavours (that are not ‘esters’) are generated naturally in the brewing process. Some people perceive these flavours as fruity.  For example, acetaldehyde can be variously perceived as bruised apple, green apple, green grass, emulsion paint or wet putty.  Not normally the way that a brewery would try to get fruity flavours into a beer, but these quirky flavours can be the source of a person perceiving fruit flavours in a beer.
  10. Fruit flavours introduced at point of serve – sometimes a slice of lemon or lime is added to a bottle, or a slice of orange is used to dress a bottle. With a shandy, a fruit-based soft drink can be mixed with the beer.  The obvious result is for this fruit flavour to infuse into the beer.


Mescan Red Tripel –

Beer Style                           -  Belgian Dark Tripel

Alcohol by Volume          -  8.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Mescan Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Westport, Mayo, Ireland

The Belgian tripel style is normally a golden beer.  However, the one rule that applies with Belgian beers is that, where there is a rule, somebody who likes brewing Belgian beers will break it.  Not surprising then that a ‘dark tripel’ has become a style.  When it comes to fruit flavours, when the flavour comes from fermentation, the fruit flavour often follows the colour of the beer.  Beers with a dark colour, when fermented with ale yeasts, can have dark fruit flavours (raisins, plums, dates).  Beers with a pale colour (e.g. golden) can have pale fruit flavours (apricot, green apple, pineapple etc.).  The precise flavour will depend on the malts, sugars and yeast used as well.

Mescan Red Tripel has a distinct red/brown colour and a well-formed off-white head.  The initial aromas give a distinct fruity flavour – raisins, plums, currants and roasted lemon.  On the flavour, chewy caramel combines with these flavours, and undertones of gentle spice also comes through – nutmeg, white pepper, cinnamon.  There is a rich, warming organic flavour – not unlike cough drops – that is also in evidence.  As the beer is tasted, raspberry juice, tangerine, peach and orange juice also comes through.  Mescan Red Tripel has a clean finish, with a gentle, lingering fruit syrup flavour cleaning off the palate quickly, and lingering as a suggestion as the flavour dissipates.

Mescan have brewed a superb example of a Belgian Dark Tripel.  As well as having layers of fruit flavours, this flavour is given a foundation of solid malt flavours, and is balanced by gentle spice.  The bitterness in the beer is very gently – present only to balance, and not particularly evident.  This is a very complex beer – each taste gives another round of flavours to enjoy.  In keeping with our theme for to-day, the fruit flavours from this beer are coming from the Belgian ale yeast that is used in fermenting the beer – as the malt sugars ferment, an array of fruit flavours develop.


Bush de Nuits –

Beer Style                           -  Strong Belgian Speciality (Golden) Ale aged in Wine Barrels

Alcohol by Volume          -  13.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Brasserie Duboisson

Brewed in                           -  Pipaix, Belgium

Bush is a particularly strong Belgian beer – normally 12.0% a.b.v.  Brasserie Duboisson take this beer and age it in wine barrels – specifically red wine barrels that have previously been used to age Nuits Saint George wine.  By itself, Bush beer gives an array of fruit flavours from the Belgian ale yeast fermentation.  The flavour from the red wine barrels infuses and combines these red wine fruit flavours with the fermentation flavours.

Bush de Nuits presents with a dark amber colour – a touch darker than the mother beer – with an off-white, full, well-formed head.  Ripe banana comes through on the nose together with background suggestions of red berry fruit flavours.  The flavours on tasting are superb – a base of chewy toffee and caramel gives a foundation of flavour for an array of fruits.  The banana that comes through a touch on the aroma becomes very much secondary to red fruit flavours – pinot noir, raspberry and raisin/dried fruit together with cherry that integrates cherry pits.  Balancing white pepper is evident on the initial flavours, and this develops into black pepper in later sips.  There is no mistaking the richness of the beer, but the particularly high alcohol content (13%) is incredibly smooth.  Bush de Nuits is full bodied with a smooth finish.

Bush de Nuits is a layered, complex beer.  The original Bush beer is superbly delicious by itself, and the aging of this beer in red wine barrels introduces new layers of complexity.  Bush de Charmes is a further example of wine-barrel aged Bush beer – a vertical tasting of these three beers gives insight into how flavours can infuse into a base beer from different wine casks.  In all cases, these wine flavours are infusing into a beer that is particularly fruity to start with, so different types of fruit salad flavours result.


Widmer Bros Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout –

Beer Style                           -  Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout with Fruit Juice (Raspberry) added

Alcohol by Volume          -  9.3% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Widmer Brothers Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Portland, Oregon

Stout is characterised by its black colour.  This beer is pitch black in colour with an off-white / tan coloured head that is particularly well formed.  This black colour brings with it dark malt flavours – in Widmer Brothers Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout, these flavours come through as dark chocolate, cocoa, and espresso coffee.  Roast bitterness is present (charcoal, burnt toast) but very smooth, and roast acidity is very much background to the beer. 

Normally with a stout, one does not expect fruit flavours.  The malt character predominates, and this is central to the style.  However, when one considers the malt flavours – particularly the chocolate character – the idea of complementing this flavour with red berry flavour makes sense.  To give this idea in another context, think of a rich, chocolate cake with drizzles of raspberry coulis.  The raspberry provides a lightening to the flavour – the body is lifted with raspberry acidity, and jammy raspberry balances the richness of the malt character.

This beer is an example of a beer that would not normally have fruit flavours.  Stout is characterised by dark malt flavours, and one would not normally associate fruit with it.  However, this particular beer is a hybrid style – a combination of the Imperial Russian Stout style with Fruit Beer.  The source of the fruit flavour is very simple in this beer – addition of natural raspberry juice to the beer after fermentation.  This beer is a type of concept beer – the brewer comes up with a vision of flavour, and brews a beer to deliver same.

Truly delicious!!




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