It’s highly likely that wine likely dates back just as far as beer, but from what we can tell, historic people didn’t care for distinctions like we do today and were happy to mix their fermentable ingredients into various types of beverages. There is chemical evidence from the tenth millennium B.C.E, which shows beer with grapes along with various other fruits and even honey in it! Revered anthropologist Patrick McGovern called these mixed concoctions “neolithic grog”.
Even though they’re ancient, it is not clear if there has ever been an era where fruit beers were the leading brew; at least, not in the last thousand years or so. There are various reasons for this, firstly fruit is a perishable product and so, to a certain degree, is beer. Making wine once a year preserves the harvest. Whereas beer needs to be brewed numerous times over the course of a year, so fruit is not always accessible. In fruit growing areas, whatever fruit was handy at the time was added, creating a unique batch of beer each time, with very different flavours.
In the ancient Middle East, dates were probably added alongside grapes. It’s also believed that northern people used cranberries in their meads and beers, and sources extending back at least 400 years mention sloe (a type of plum), elderberries, raspberries, and plenty of others. We’re still unsure about how ancient the cherry lambic, kriek, is, but the raspberry version was produced as recently as the 1970s, and flavours like peach and blackcurrant even more recently.
It’s likely that the earliest brewers used whole fruit, and then when pressing technology arrived, only the juice. These methods are still the best ways of providing fruit flavour and aroma to your beer. If you know a thing about wine, you probably know that the strain, season, weather, soil, and orientation all play a huge role in the quality and flavour of the grapes which then have an effect on the wine. This is true of any fruit that you may want to add to your beer. There is plenty of fruit on the market which looks beautiful, but tastes little better than the plastic it’s packaged in. Fresh fruit available from supermarkets is generally not much use for beer, but there is often good fruit to be had from farmers’ markets.
That said, the flavour of frozen fruit is usually pretty good. It is harvested ripe and then frozen near the fields, often using varieties that actually have some flavour. If you’re looking for something more tropical, whole or puréed may be the only available forms. Surprisingly, freezing is actually beneficial to brewing; it lowers the microbial load as well as rupturing the cell walls, meaning that the juices flow freely into the beer. In addition, many frozen purées have been pasteurized first. If you’re planning on using frozen fruit, ensure that you warm it up to fermenting temperature before adding it, as a sudden chill can irreparably damage the yeast and halt fermentation.
Winemakers’ concentrates exist in various different flavours other than grape, and these provide an advantage, in that they are pure slurry, meaning that they lack skins which can float to the top of the fermenter and form a safe haven for mold and bacteria. These concentrates are not cheap, and should be used for pretty special brews.
For whole, puréed, or concentrated fruit, the optimum time to add it is right at the end of the primary, this helps to maintain the aromas. One note of caution when using whole fruit – make sure that the pieces aren’t large enough to block the neck of the fermenter. If this happens, even a tiny amount of pressure can burst the barboy, which is not only very messy, but also dangerous. Plenty of headspace is a good idea, but if you do have a mostly full carboy, cover the top with sanitized cling wrap and a rubber band, rather than a stopper and airlock.
The more refined fruit products, if used well, can be very effective. Fruit syrups may have pleasant—if sometimes one-dimensional—flavours. Sour cherry, blackcurrant, strawberry, and blackberry syrups and many others can be found in Eastern European markets. From Asia come passionfruit, mangosteen, litchi, and others. These syrups often contain some sugar as well as the fruit, and you need to factor this into your recipe. Another option is aromatic extracts; these are water-clear, just pure aromas, extracted from the fruit through vacuum distillation. Only use them in extremely small quantities to augment or replace whole character which might be missing from ingredients like syrup, or fruit aroma which lost during fermentation. Some fruits, particularly peaches and apricots, are at risk of this, so adding peach extract on top of real peaches is an effective way of creating a peachy-tasting peach beer. Extracts are best added after fermentation.