Beers with a touch of fruit can be quite refreshing in the summer. Among the most common are those featuring hints of cherries, raspberries, apricots and peaches. Such fruits are often added to lighter beers like blonde ales, wheats and saisons. The intensity of fruit flavor depends on the brewer's own palate and love of a specific fruit.
I've always liked how New Glarus Brewing approaches fruit beers, but when brewmaster Dan Carey announced he was working on one with strawberry and rhubarb, I had my doubts, even though the two fruits combine to make the consummate Wisconsin pie.
When Carey made the first of two 320-barrel batches earlier this summer, it was a challenge to find enough Wisconsin rhubarb. So he asked for help from local gardeners. The result was the "Big Squeeze," a celebration held in conjunction with the New Glarus Polka Fest and Beer, Bacon & Cheese Festival on on Saturday, June 15. For every five pounds of rhubarb one brought to the Big Squeeze, the contributor received a free beer. A rhubarb collection and grinding station was added to the brewery's beer tent in the middle of First Street in downtown New Glarus, which also doubled as the polka dance floor. Now, just a little more than a month later, the first bottles of Strawberry Rhubarb Ale are ready to drink.
What is it? Strawberry Rhubarb from New Glarus Brewing Company of New Glarus, Wisconsin
Style: The foundation of New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb is a sour brown ale, an amber to copper-reddish beer, bottle-conditioned and often cloudy or hazy when served. It has very little hoppiness, and even a low degree of malty sweetness. The flavor can be sour, acidic or fruity, even before fruit is added. It commonly ranges in strength from 4.5% to 6.5% ABV.
Background: "I think everybody is a rhubarb pie fan," says Dan Carey. "I hope people like [the beer]. I try my best and then just keep my fingers crossed. This is a tough beer to make."
Those who know rhubarb can debate if it's a vegetable or fruit. In the United States, it's commonly considered a fruit, so I'm calling New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb a fruit beer. All of the New Glarus Fruit beers are unique and highly sought after by beer fans around the nation. They are sold in champagne-style green bottles with the cap and neck dipped in wax. Last year was a bad year for fruit. Carey ran short of both the cherries and raspberries that he uses in his special fruit beers. He has not made Wisconsin Belgian Red for nearly a year, and the Raspberry Tart has been in limited supply. Due to these shortages, Carey created Serendipity, a new blended fruit beer, to help fill the void.
The Wisconsin rhubarb that goes into the new beer is ground to separate the greenish-red plant tissue from the juice. The strawberries are also added as juice, made from Washington state berries. "Rhubarb is a hard material to use," says Carey. "It's not particularly fantastic tasting, but once you add in the strawberry, it's pretty good."
The rhubarb and strawberry are added to the fermenting beer and allowed to age in oak tanks for about six weeks before bottling. A light amount of Cascade hops are used, but bitterness really isn't detectable. The beer becomes sweeter from the strawberries. It's bubbly and refreshing, finishing at a light 4% ABV. It sells in single 750 mL bottles for around $10.
New Glarus Brewing is also preparing the next release in its limited Thumbprint series of beers. The brewery is currently out with its Wild Sour Ale, a cross between a traditional lambic and a sour brown ale that is aged in oak for 18 months before being released. Coming up next in the Thumbprint series is the Imperial Weizen. Last released in 2011, it should be on store shelves by mid-September.
- Aroma: Strawberries!
- Appearance: Haze-cloudy amber color. A thick, soft, pinkish-tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, bubbly.
- Taste: The softness and smoothness of the strawberries come out first in the aroma and flavor. That fruity sweetness dominates the rhubarb, which doesn't come out until late in the flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A light fruit finish with a crisp ending.
Glassware: The stemmed tulip glass is a great way to show off this beer. The lip's outward flare holds the soft tan-pinkish head, while the curved body of the glass brings out the color, adding a visual accent to the soft strawberry dominance.
Pairs well with: Strawberry Rhubarb is best on its own or as a pre-meal beer. After trying it with several type of cheese, I was surprised how well Creama Kasa, a rich triple-cream cheese from Carr Valley, paired with this brew. The sharp sourness and slight salty flavor of this cheese brings out the strawberry side of the beer.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb makes its mark as a beer with a fruit accent. This isn't a rich, cola-like, fruity drink. The strawberry and rhubarb never overtake the sour brown ale at the heart of this brew. Carey's sour brown ale is well suited to be the base for his fruit beers.
Making any fruit beer can be tricky because those who like them usually start by liking the fruit on its own. And that creates expectations as to smell, taste and intensity. I'm predisposed to like strawberry-rhubarb because it's my favorite pie. I just didn't think it went with beer, so I was surprised how much I liked the result. What worked for me is the firm and light nose with the soft fruity sweetness of strawberries. The rhubarb is hidden in the background, and I found it only after concentrating on the finish. That's good thing, as a little rhubarb goes a long way.
This isn't a beer with many contemporaries for comparison. While there are a handful of strawberry and strawberry-rhubarb brews around, many of those have lighter wheat or blonde ales as the base beer. It's the sour brown as a base beer that makes this special. That existing sourness blends very well with the strawberry.
I also like this New Glarus Strawberry Rhubarb for reasons beyond just its taste. There's an experience associated with being part of its creation, partly because I donated rhubarb from my own garden (10 pounds of it). There's also the annual celebratory aspect marking the summer season and harvest time of local rhubarb and strawberries. Plus, I just have to smile at the brewery's down-home marketing strategies that work well in connecting it to the community. Deb and Dan Carey certainly had a lot of fun coming up with the idea for the Big Squeeze in the midst of the "oompah music" of New Glarus Polka Fest. That could make this beer a cult classic.