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Fruit beers have gotten a bad rap for years. In the early days of microbrewing, nearly every small brewery made a raspberry wheat ale. It was viewed as a "starter" beer — or worse, a beer meant to appeal to women — not to be taken seriously. They have been derided as "dumbing down" or adulteration, an accusation that seems quaint in today's world, where the crazier the ingredient the better.

But its reputation has improved. Beer drinkers have realized that a well made fruit beer can be a wonderful thing. Light and spritzy citrus or berry wheats help beat the summer heat. Tangerine and grapefruit are perfect complements to the citrusy hops of American IPAs. Dark fruits add luxurious depth to a rich, roasty stout. And let's not forget about the Belgians.

Belgian brewers have been adding fruit to beer for centuries. Long aging on loads of bitter-tart Schaerbeek cherries is the essence of a kriek lambic; it's raspberries for framboise. These beers rely on mixed-culture fermentation, meaning a host of wild yeasts and bacteria do the job of converting sugar to alcohol. The result is beer of stunning funky, sour, fruity complexity.

To go full-on traditional Belgian, try Hommage from Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen in Beersel. The Hommage series was created as an homage to brewery founder Gaston Debelder, who died in 2005. The version available now is a 40-60 blend of cherry kriek and raspberry frambozen made from one- and two-year-old lambics.

Hommage is very sour, with lemony lactic acidity and sour cherry. But there's so much more to this beer. The flavor is more berry than cherry, but both are present and the fruit becomes more luxurious as you work your way through the glass. The mixed-culture funk is there, as is the faintest whiff of aged cheese. It's very dry and spritzy, like a sparkling wine. Hommage is an expensive, but rare treat for lovers of traditional sour ales.

Brouwerij Liefmans’ Kriek-Brut is a great introduction to Belgian sours.
Brouwerij Liefmans’ Kriek-Brut is a great introduction to Belgian sours.

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Brouwerij Liefmans has been making traditional sour beers since the 17th century. Its Kriek-Brut is great for people who want a gentler introduction to Belgian sours. A blend of Belgian brown and pale ales, the acidity has a balsamic character that is balanced by malt and fruit sweetness. The fruit is the star. Dark and tart cherries take the lead, joined by flavors of dried or candied plums. Hints of caramel and milk chocolate add to the layered complexity.

Back home, August Schell Brewing Company's Starkeller series also uses long-aged, mixed-culture fermentation, though for German-style beers rather than Belgian. These Berliner Weiss-style beers are aged in large cypress wood tanks purchased by the New Ulm brewery in 1936 to age lagers.

Starkeller Peach is the only one I'm seeing on shelves. This light and lemony treat is aged on peaches and apricots. Fresh and canned peach flavor is notable as an undercurrent, but kicks in more fully in the finish. Apricot brings a deeper, darker stone fruit character throughout. Low levels of barnyard funk remind you that this is a mixed-culture beer.

Having a moment

Sour beers are very popular with beer drinkers and brewers right now. Most modern sour beers are "kettle sours" fermented with a single strain of lactic acid-producing bacteria. One-note on their own, their intensely tart and lemony nature creates a perfect base for the addition of fruit.

Dream Patch Fruited Sour from Brewery Ommegang in New York is brewed in collaboration with Brouwerij Liefmans and is more complex than many modern sours. Brewed with cherries, raspberries and blueberries, it pours a deep, opaque, ruby red. The aroma and flavor are all fruit. Dark and sour cherries start it off and linger in the finish; sweet blueberry and tart raspberry fills in the middle. Not excessively sour, the acidity is well balanced by malt and fruit sweetness. The faintest suggestion of funk hints that this might be a mixed-culture beer.

Bauhaus Brewlabs’s Guavatron is tart and tropical.
Bauhaus Brewlabs’s Guavatron is tart and tropical.

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Surly Brewing Company's Grapefruit Supreme is like sour lemonade with a shot of grapefruit juice. Very tart lemon and lemon peel lead the way. Grapefruit adds both sour and sweet, with wheaty malt boosting the sweetness just a bit. It's definitely a light and crushable end-of-summer quencher. Minneapolis-based Surly's Supreme lineup also includes mango, Key lime and black cherry.

Guavatron Pink Guava Gose from Bauhaus Brewlabs in Minneapolis is another fruity, sour refresher. This one is all tart and tropical. Pink and squishy guava is the main note, adding some sweetness to counter the sour. Gose is typically brewed with a small amount of salt, and in the Guavatron serves to further boost the guava sweetness.

A boost to IPAs

Whether tropical or citrus, adding fruits to an IPA gives a juicy boost to the already fruity flavors of American hop varieties. And sugars from the fruit can provide sweetness to balance the bitter. Higher-alcohol fruited imperial and double IPAs seem to be popular this summer.

Tree Shaker Imperial Tangerine IPA from Odell Brewing Co. in Colorado is a great example. At 8% alcohol, it has the high bitterness, full body and extra malt of an imperial IPA but finishes clean and dry. Juicy orange and tangerine citrus burst forth in both the flavor and aroma, joined by background floral and apricot.

In Ruby's Revenge Imperial Grapefruit IPA from Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Co., the addition of grapefruit pushes the citrusy hops to new levels. But the fruit serves to enhance the hops, not overwhelm them. It's a perfect melding of citrus with citrus. As with Tree Shaker, the high gravity doesn't leave it heavy.

Big Lake's Lupulin Brewing pushes everything to the extreme with Fruitsmack Triple IPA, a 13% alcohol monster with mango, pineapple and coconut. Though certainly full-bodied, for its weight Fruitsmack is surprisingly light and dry. The flavor is all about the tropics. Mango and pineapple combine with tropical and tangerine-flavored hops to create a squishy, juicy fruit salad. Coconut comes mainly in the finish. The booziness is a detractor, though. Fruitsmack would have been just as good or better at 8%.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@aperfectpint.net.