Bitter revelation

Neither apple nor pear, the humble quince deserves a place at the table

Photo by Erich Ferdinand (via Flickr)

When I was in my early 20s and first learning to make beer and wine, I rode my bicycle through the suburban neighborhoods of Marin County in search of sidewalk fruit trees from which I could glean enough of a harvest to flavor my next bucket of homebrew. I picked persimmons, berries, plums and figs this way—and each season I noticed, but thought little of, a particular backyard tree in San Rafael that grew heavy with strange- looking apples, shaped almost like papayas, that rained to the lawn uneaten each October. Nobody in the house, it seemed, wanted to eat them, and the tree was too far from the fence for me to have a sample.

Years later, I realized what was wrong with these apples: They were quinces, and—generally speaking—who but a stovetop jam-maker wants to eat a quince? This Eurasian native, after all, does not make itself easy to love. The quince is a fruit that has come 90 percent of the way toward being a perfectly delicious apple or pear but then, in the last stages of ripening, steers off track toward its final form—essentially a sour, acidic apple made palatable only by an elaborate process in the kitchen.

But quinces have their assets. Taxonomically, these apple-and-pear cousins are remarkable for having a genus all their own, Cydonia. Culinarily, they are notable for their potent aroma; when those San Rafael quinces were spoiling on the ground, I could sometimes smell them from the street—a potent scent of guava, pineapple and rose. Thus, it should be no great surprise that some brewers have turned to the quince as a novel and fragrant means of capturing autumn in a bottle. (Quince beers, too, are a fine alternative to pumpkin beers, a more common expression of autumn for the brewer.)

Most recently, perhaps, North Coast Brewing Co. made a beer with quince—a tart Berliner Weisse-style ale that also has cranberries in the mix. The fact that North Coast, based in Fort Bragg, has used quinces in a beer seems more like a favor to the quince than a boon to the beer. But North Coast is known for its restraint and its selective approach toward making beer, and my policy has long been that if North Coast makes it, it’s probably worth drinking.

So, it seemed a good bet to buy a few bottles of the beer, which is now on shelves at BevMo! and other stores with large beer selections. The Berliner Weisse is generally a tart and sour style, but North Coast’s rendition is somewhat the opposite, nearly as sweet as soda with only some faint acidic fruit notes—from the cranberry, I think. The tropical fruit aromas, I venture to guess, come from the fragrant quince. I enjoyed the beer, which I found refreshing on a hot afternoon. Would I buy it again? Probably not.

The online beer-critiquing forum shows 39 quince beers and ciders in its inventory of reviews. That’s a tiny slice of the craft beer pie. Even beers made with another unusual ingredient—spruce tips—number 198. By style, the quince beers are all over the board, with IPAs, strong winter warmers and a variety of sour and barrel-aged beers on the list. My impression is that, unlike jam-makers, brewers don’t know quite what to do with the humble quince.