Apples and beer have a long intermingled history. In Germany, you'll see Frassbraus, a nonalcoholic beverage made from malt extract, apples, and spices. Belgians include apples in their pomme lambics. The British mix up an apple shandy called the Snakebite (a mix of cider and lager—for the Irish variation, use stout.)
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So it's only natural that today's brewers and cidermakers are bringing apples and beer together again. We recently had a chance to sit down and explore a few of these beverage hybrids, including both ales brewed with apples and ciders fermented with ale yeast.
Of all the apple-inspired beers we tasted, the clear favorite was the Unplugged Apple Ale from New Glarus Brewing Company. A big, red apple bomb with a sweet, malty backbone, this beer is full of classic American flavors. Fresh-picked fruit dominates; this beer isn't about fermented cidery character. The malt component is full bodied with generous caramel note, so it conjures up memories of Grandma's apple pie and caramel apples from the boardwalk. Try this rich ale with your favorite vanilla ice cream.
For drinkers looking for a more cidery beer option, Fallen Apple from Wisconsin's Furthermore Brewery has that "Snakebite in a bottle" character. A combination of hard cider and cream ale, blended at the time of bottling, the Fallen Apple carries more of a cider complexity than most of the other beers we tried. While still a cream ale at heart, there were earthy undertones, a lighter body, and a fair amount of apple-skin flavor.
Sadly, the Belgian variations we tried lacked the complexity of their new world counterparts. Lindemans Pomme, probably the most well-known apple beer, tasted more like green apple Jolly Ranchers than actual apples, and lacked the funky, earthy character of a more traditional lambic.
Similarly, the Floris Apple seemed loaded with fake apple flavor and a sticky sweetness from the addition of non-fermentable sweeteners. The result tasted more like burnt sugar than apples and we found it nearly undrinkable. A Canadian variation on the Belgian style, Unibroue's Éphémère, was more straightforward and less sweet. Here, the sweetness was replaced with a yeast-driven, spicy character but the beer still lacked any authentic-tasting apple flavor.
We also sampled a few ciders that borrowed some tricks from the craft beer handbook. Crispin Cider's The Saint is a cider fermented with Trappist ale yeast with added maple syrup. While its cider component was fairly one dimensional, the yeast did contribute banana and clove notes, a trademark of the Belgian Trappist ales, and the maple syrup contributed a distinctive nutty sweetness. Die-hard cider drinkers may find this cider a bit disconcerting, but it offers a compelling crossover path for beer lovers.
Less successful was the Crispin Lansdowne, a cider brewed with stout yeast and blackstrap molasses. Aside from a light body, the Lansdown had almost no cider character at all, and it traded any fruit-based subtlety for a deep, bitter character and strong licorice flavor that turned off both the cider and beer drinkers on our tasting panel.
While neither Crispin cider was outstanding on its own, blending them generated better results. The Jacket is an oak-aged blend of Saint, Lansdowne and other Crispin ciders. The oak acts as a binder for the dissimilar flavors present in the individual ciders while smoothing out their rough edges. The blend has a smokey, leathery quality with underpinnings of vanilla and the distinct tartness of Colfax apples. If you're looking for the adventurous side of cider making, then this is it.
Overall, these cider/beer hybrids fared better when they remained fresh-flavored and true to their roots. Natural flavor pairings—like the red apple and caramel flavors of the New Glarus Apple Ale —yielded more favorable results than when things got more complicated. With both the craft beer and cider industries on the rise, I can only assume that we'll see more interesting and successful apple/beer experiments as time goes on.