The cranberry is an odd fruit, growing on shrubs in bogs and tasting more acidic than sweet. When was the last time you ate a raw one? It is also not the most obvious fruit to add to beer—not surprisingly, it's mostly breweries from cranberry-growing regions that attempt to do so.
It can be a little risky, from a brewing perspective, to add any foreign bodies to a beer. Cranberries present special issues, Sand Creek Brewery's Todd Kreuger told me, because cranberries are very low pH and can stall a beer's fermentation. Lots of healthy yeast is necessary for cranberry beer to not be an underattenuated, sticky-sweet disaster.
But each of these cranberry beers is enjoyable in its own way, and any of them would make a fun addition to your Thanksgiving meal.
Harpoon Grateful Harvest Ale
Harpoon Brewery gets its cranberries from local Massachusetts bogs and donates $1 per six-pack to food banks. Good karma, but how's the beer? The first whiff is strong with more bready malt than fruit. The beer tastes more, well, beery than you might expect, which is a very good thing. It's malty without being too thick and just hoppy enough (25 IBUs) that earthiness balances the cranberry bite. (Those woody Northern Brewer hops aren't my personal favorite, but that's just me.)
This beer, with its drying, lightly puckery finish, would be a good contrast to the sugar-added sweetness of cranberry sauce. It's a little too unusual to be a true session beer, but its relatively light body and 5.9% ABV make it reasonable to have more than one.
New Glarus Serendipity
Usually, Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewing makes a much-anticipated sour brown ale this time of year. The most recent cherry harvest was sparser than usual, so the brewer subbed in apples and cranberries to pick up the fruity slack for a fall-appropriate brew.
This one is the least cranberry-ish of the three beers sampled, and also the sweetest. It evokes old friends like apple juice and cherry Lifesavers. It uses wild yeast and is a little tart, but leans more towards sweet 'n' sour than truly sour. The cranberries come out most in the semi-sweet finish. The tall, waxed, green bottle makes for classy dinner table presentation. Bring Serendipity out with (or as) the Thanksgiving dessert course.
Sand Creek Cranberry Special Ale
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, Sand Creek Brewery gives its local cranberries a solo. You would be forgiven for mistaking this for cranberry juice in a blind tasting—which is fine, because cranberry juice is delicious. It makes sense because the beer is made by adding concentrated cran juice processed in the brewery. The base beer is a mellow, only 5% ABV, and very lightly hopped (10 IBUs), so the fruit flavor dominates. This would be a Thanksgiving crowd pleaser, even for your family members who can never understand why you like beer so much. As a beer dork, I'd personally prefer more hops and malt to challenge the fruit juice, but this was very well done and made me think the town of Black River Falls (population 3622) is lucky to have this brewery.
Have you ever tried cranberry beer? Have any favorite bottles?
Samples provided for review consideration.