Beer: Cherry bomb's away
American fruit beers are often derided as “lawnmower beers,” “training wheel beers” and “chick beers.” But on an unseasonably hot spring day, there’s nothing wrong with a simple, refreshing, fluid-replenishing quaff.
Two of the District's brewpubs, to celebrate cherry blossom season, are offering ruddy amber ales, flavored with cherry puree from Oregon, that should remain on tap for the duration of the pink blooms.
Cherry Blossom Fest, from the District ChopHouse, is the stronger of the two, at 7.7 percent alcohol by volume. Head brewer Barrett Lauer adds the fruit to the fermenter: 294 pounds per eight-barrel batch, or more than a pound per gallon. The fruity flavor is restrained, however, probably as a result of the yeast chewing up the sugar molecules. The addition of wheat gives the ale a crisp, slightly bready finish.
Mike McCarthy, director of brewing operations for the Capitol City Brewing Co. chain, ferments his Cherry Blossom Ale with a Belgian yeast strain (albeit a very clean-fermenting variety). He pumps the finished beer into a tank containing 300 pounds of the puree and allows the beer to sit atop the cherry goop for one week. Cherry Blossom Ale — an ordinary 5.2 percent alcohol by volume — has a sweet, fruity finish with just a hint of bitterness (perhaps a few pits or stems made it into the puree?). “It’s kind of our groundhog, a sign that warmer weather is on the way,” laughs McCarthy, who promises a steady supply at all three Capitol City branches.
Cherry is a much subtler fruit than raspberry or peaches, and neither of the above beers has much of a fruity fragrance. They taste like beer — not pie filling.
Of course, brewers outside Washington get into the cherry act, too. Here's what some others are up to:
Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, a year-round offering from Boston Beer Co. that sees an annual blip in sales each spring (six packs just popped up at my local CVS), does have a more pronounced, black cherry soda-pop type of aroma. Company chairman Jim Koch buys sweet cherries from Traverse City, Mich., and adds the dried fruit to the mash tun (the vessel where the brewer cooks the grain to break down the starches into simpler sugars). The cherry nose dissipates quickly, and the beer goes down pretty much like an ordinary American wheat ale.
Much more assertive are the kriek lambics from Belgium, which are exposed to airborne yeasts and fermented with small, black, sour cherries (stones and all). Jens Piferoen, beer sommelier for Belga Cafe in the Barracks Row neighborhood of Capitol Hill, prizes Oud Beersel for its authentically funky, earthy lambic flavor, but notes that the sweeter Lindemans Kriek, spiked with fresh cherry juice, is more accessible to a non-beer geek audience.
Somewhere in between is St. Louis Premium Kriek from the Van Honsebrouck Brewery in Ingelmunster, with its pink foam and huge, almost perfumy fruit flavor, balanced by a refreshing acidity and an almond-like dryness.
Piferoen notes that for the duration of the Cherry Blossom Festival, Belga Cafe will be serving a champagne and St. Louis Kriek cocktail called the Cherry Royal. “If you like bubbles, you’ll think it’s great!” he promises.
Incidentally, Boston Beer’s Koch brews his own version of a fruit lambic. Samuel Adams American Kriek is part of the brewery’s “Barrel Room” collection of exotic specialty beers in 750-milliliter bottles. The kriek is flavored with sour Balaton cherries, aged in oak barrels and blended with what Koch calls “Cosmic Mother Funk”: ale spontaneously fermented with whatever organisms grow in the rafters of his Boston brewery, which dates back some 150 years. “We’ve gotten organisms from when Lincoln was president,” Koch says with a chuckle.
Cherry blossom fever is infecting amateur brewers as well as professional ones. The DC Homebrewers Club on March 25 held a homebrewing competition for beers made with blossoms or flower derivatives. Among the dozen or so entries, notes club organizer Sam Winetka, the most popular flower-based ingredient was honey. Clove, hibiscus and chamomile ales also graced the winner’s circle.
For a commercial beer made with flowers, try Fraoch Heather Ale from William Bros Brewing Co. in Alloa, Scotland. Brewer Bruce Williams adds purple sprigs of Scottish heather to his delicately perfumed beer the way conventional brewers add hops. The “skirt-wearing flower-picker (as Brickskeller owner Dave Alexander refers to him) will be appearing at the Brick April 6-7. It’s an excellent opportunity to try his latest experiments in brewing or (if you’re a homebrewer) pry loose some trade secrets.
If you have your own cherry-brew favorites (or tips), by all means, shout them out in the comments below.
-- Greg Kitsock
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