Cesar Marron loves cranberries. Not cranberry sauce. Not the sweetened, dried cranberries known as Craisins. But the unadulterated, unsweetened, tannic, tart fruit.
“I pop them in my mouth and munch them on their own,” says Marron, founder and head brewer of Sketchbook Brewing Co. in Evanston, Ill.
Marron isn’t like most people. Or most animals for that matter — the cranberry is the odd fruit that doesn’t rely on animals to eat them to spread their seeds. Cranberries, which grow near wetlands, spread thanks to an air pocket at their core that enables them to use water to travel to distant beds. Rather than evolve large amounts of sugar to entice animals to eat them, cranberries developed tannin to discourage their consumption.
The evolutionary adaptations didn’t work. Cranberries’ tannin and bold color made the fruit attractive to Native Americans who used them for everything from dyeing fabrics, treating ailments such as stomach cramps and as part of a mixture (along with dried deer meat and fat tallow) called pemmican, which served as a kind of proto-energy bar that could provide protein and fat on long journeys. And while no one knows if cranberries were eaten at the first Thanksgiving, the fruit has become a staple at Thanksgiving dinners and, increasingly, in beers that roll out around this time every year.
Of course, most people aren’t like Marron. We only eat cranberries when they’re sweetened with sugar and simmered in cranberry sauce, chopped and mixed with sugar into a relish or sweetened and baked in a scone. And while there is no shortage of breweries incorporating cranberries this time of year, many of those beers aren’t very good. They’re too astringent or too sweet as it can be difficult to find the right balance.
But some brewers, such as Marron, have found ways to highlight the flavor of the berries without making a beer that’s too tart or overly sweetened. Sketchbook’s Ripe Now Farmstand Porter with Cranberries features rich dark chocolate notes that marry with a hint of cranberry jam. While it’s a fruit beer, it is first and foremost a porter that’s ideal for cold November and December nights.
North Coast Brewing takes a markedly different approach. Its Cranberry-Quince Berliner Weisse is very much a fruit beer that riffs off of the traditional Berliner weisse, a style low in alcohol, extremely tart and often served with a flavored syrup such as raspberry. North Coast’s brewmaster, Chuck Martins, started with an already-tart beer then married cranberries with quince, a fruit that tastes somewhere between apples and pears, by a one-to-five margin to avoid producing an overly astringent beer.
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“We want balance,” he says. “We don’t want your senses to be overwhelmed, which is why we tamed cranberries’ harshness.” The result is a beautiful rose-hued beer that’s tart with distinct cranberry notes rounded out by sweet pearlike accents.
Then there’s Destihl Brewery’s Cranberry Criek, a kettle sour produced with cranberry and sweet cherry purees. It’s an easy-drinking acidic beer that allows the fruit — sweet cherries complement the tart cranberries — to shine.
In any beer, balance is key. But that’s particularly true when dealing with an ingredient as extreme as a cranberry.