Watermelon Beer Is Having a Moment

Move over, 21st Amendment — you’ve got company.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

For over a decade, San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery has had the market on watermelon beer pretty well cornered. Sure, there have been solid efforts from other brewers — one-offs from Mikkeller and The Bruery, a smattering of attempts from small regional outfits — many of which fell into early retirement. But if you’re one of the many drinkers who look forward to spotting that first can of Hell or High Watermelon each year, you’re in luck, because summer ’16 is bringing the variety.

It started this past spring, when the first six-packs of Briney Melon Gose (from the Boonville, California–based Anderson Valley Brewing Company) appeared nationwide. This SweeTart of a beer veered far off the beaten path, bursting out of its colorful can with a flavor that married the salty pucker of a standard gose with a juicy sweetness. The result was irresistible, and it wasn’t long before other major breweries started throwing their hats into the national distribution ring. Now, with summer well under way, you can’t swing a reusable canvas bag at Trader Joe’s without knocking a new melon brew off the shelf.

It seems like a no-brainer — watermelon and beer are two of summer’s most reliable refreshers. So why is this phenomenon spreading only now, 15 years after the release of Hell or High Watermelon? Some brewers I spoke to said they weren’t expecting much from the waterlogged fruit’s one-note flavor profile. Yet “it is surprisingly flavor-active, which is counterintuitive,” says Cody Reif, the research and development brewer at Fort Collins, Colorado–based New Belgium, referring to the assertive watermelon taste that comes through in his Heavy Melon ale.

Some brewers are adding watermelon to more intense beers, like imperial IPAs and sours, perhaps for a taming effect. Others add it to milder brews, like wheat beer or pale ale, allowing the melon to be the star. No matter the style, the brewers I talked to all use fresh watermelon juice or purée, rather than artificial flavoring agents or whole fruit. Brewing with whole fruit is known to be messy, labor-intensive, prone to bacterial development, and ultimately low-yield because the flesh sucks up so much moisture. Using pasteurized purées or juices allows the brewers to sidestep many of these hardships without resorting to the extracts or artificial additives that gave fruit beer a bad reputation in the first place.

The initial lack of interest in brewing watermelon beer may have stemmed in part from this widespread distrust of adjunct (read: flavored) beers. “[Adjunct beers have] experienced a stigma the past two decades due to lackluster base beer and artificial ingredients,” says Colby Chandler, VP and specialty brewer at San Diego’s Ballast Point, who adds complexity to his Watermelon Dorado with fresh rind and cucumber. Many brewers I talked to expressed gratitude to 21st Amendment for paving the way with a fruit beer that even the most committed beer snob could enjoy. According to 21st Amendment’s cofounder and brewmaster, Shaun O’Sullivan, big, burly dudes who usually go for double IPAs and imperial stouts often approach him in the taproom to confess their love for the brewery’s watermelon wheat.

Taprooms seem to be a catalyst in many of these watermelon success stories. Hell or High Watermelon’s creators agree that their beer wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the informal testing ground that tasting rooms provide.

“The great thing about brewing at our pub for the last 16 years is that we’ve been able to create something out-of-the-box, put it out there, and test it out to see if people enjoy it,” O’Sullivan says. “Initially, watermelon beer was a challenging one for our guests to understand.”

Several brewers echoed this sentiment: Watermelon Dorado went from a cask at Ballast Point’s tasting room to a debut at LA Beer Week; Anderson Valley’s Briney Melon Gose began in the tasting room and went on to the Boonville Beer Festival; and New Belgium’s Heavy Melon was kicking around in the brewers’ heads for years before they introduced a test batch to customers. The result of all of these trial runs? An overwhelmingly positive reception.

“It took getting some beer people could taste before it got much traction,” Reif says. “It takes time for brewers to warm up to nontraditional ingredients, and a few bold brewers to bring them into the fold.”

Those bold brewers, O’Sullivan and his partner, Nico Freccia, were doubtful at first. “When we first opened our brewpub in 2000, he [Freccia] came to me asking what I thought about brewing his watermelon beer,” O’Sullivan says. “I, of course, told him, ‘No one is going to drink that.’ Then, in 2001, I brought him into the brewery and surprised him with floor-to-ceiling stacks of cases of watermelon.” The rest is adjunct-beer history.

This moment had broader significance for the craft-beer world. If there’s one thing adjuncts are good for, it’s drawing the interest of non-beer-drinkers. Making an adjunct that beer geeks will love is a difficult (and noble) task, but making a beer that brings new fans into the fold is all the more meaningful for the industry. With Hell or High Watermelon, 21st Amendment filled both of those tall orders, and other watermelon beers are following suit.

“It’s exciting to see the inexperienced beer drinker enjoying Watermelon Dorado,” Chandler says. “Also amazing is to see a big, bitter, sticky, hop-flavored, 10% ABV beer be the gateway for many non-beer-drinkers.”

Whether you’re already plenty experienced or still looking for that gateway, there is probably a watermelon brew out there for you. So which one should you bring to the beach this weekend? Here are a few tasting notes on the most widely available options.

21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon (Wheat Beer; 4.9% ABV)

These pioneers achieve their blend using real watermelon from Yakima Valley, Washington. No extracts or chemical flavorings come near this beer, which explains how they avoid Jolly Rancher–esque artificiality and instead produce a drink that’s biscuit-y yet crisp.

New Belgium’s Heavy Melon (Fruit Beer/Ale; 5% ABV)

When Cody Reif and his team were working on summer beer concepts, his friend brought a serendipitous dish to a barbecue. “He made this watermelon, mint, and lime salad, and I thought it might have legs as a beer,” Reif says. The formula New Belgium eventually settled on uses Pacific Northwest watermelon, but no mint, resulting in an ale that’s a little smoother than the crisp HHW, with less yeast on the body and a juicy, thirst-quenching finish.

Anderson Valley’s Briney Melon Gose (4.2% ABV)

With The Kimmie, The Yink, and The Holy Gose, plus the subsequent Blood Orange Gose, in such high demand, Anderson Valley quickly jumped on the next iteration. “We tried a lot of different fruits,” said AVBC sales and marketing manager Steve Miller. “Pineapple, stone fruit, cherry, grapefruit, papaya, mango. But none of them had that ‘it’ factor we were looking for.” AVBC went through several varieties of watermelon before finding the hook, but that patience paid off. This is by far the juiciest brew of the bunch, probably because fresh watermelon purée is added directly to the fermenter along with the salt. It’s a Warhead-like sour that’s not for the faint of heart, but you gose die-hards out there can prepare to fall for it.

Terrapin’s Watermelon Gose (4.5% ABV)

This award-winning brewery out of Athens, Georgia, has a relatively limited distribution, but its reputation precedes it (and this gose). If you spot one of these rare neon cans in the wild, snatch it up. The aroma of this one is like that of a sourdough starter, with fruity esters that keep the salt and sour at bay. If Briney Melon is too pucker-y for you, this is a step down the sourness scale that might be just right.

Ballast Point’s Watermelon Dorado (Double IPA; 10% ABV)

The brewing team at Ballast Point looks for fruits that create a bridge to the base beer. The company’s Grapefruit Sculpin evolved from the grapefruit flavor of the Sculpin hops. When it came time to consider complementary flavors for its 10% ABV Dorado Double IPA, watermelon won out. The hefty, dank brew has plenty of citrus tang, and the soft, comforting sweetness of watermelon rounds it out perfectly. For a good buzz that doesn’t require downing too many bottles, this Dorado’s for you.

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