Ripe for brewing

A case for persimmons in beer

Hachiya persimmon

Hachiya persimmon

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker (via flickr)

Autumn is about to shift into the doldrums of winter. No other seasonal transition is so abrupt and dynamic: Eight months’ worth of photosynthesis culminate in an explosion of energy, biomass and color. Then, almost all at once, the landscape shuts down under short days and gray skies. Three dreary months later, spring reluctantly crawls out of bed.

Few features of the countryside showcase this final autumn burst like persimmons, abundant in local yards and often visible, above the rooftops, from blocks away. Unfortunately, many tree-keepers don’t consume these fruits, which—depending on the variety—can be eaten like apples or soft like pudding. There are more labor-intensive ways to use them, too—like drying them in the Japanese hoshigaki style or baking them into desserts. Still, most suburban crops go to the animals.

I marvel that more brewers don’t jump on this opportunity. After all, what better way could there be for a brewer to bottle up a little taste of the season? Oh, right—pumpkins.

So, persimmons are obviously not the key ingredient of a popular beer style, which is more than most fruits—except, maybe, mangoes or grapefruits—could expect. What I can’t understand is why so few brewers, anywhere, period, have dabbled with persimmons as a seasonal ingredient. A search on the online beer rating venue Beer Advocate shows 86 persimmon beers—ever. The same search for mango beers turned up 1,430. shows just 50 persimmon beers. These results likely don’t include persimmon brews made in small batches and served exclusively on draft at breweries. Still, the numbers are a barometer, and the results are clear: Brewers overlook one of the most visible items of autumn, gravitating toward mulling spices and orange squashes instead.

I have tasted just three persimmon beers. One I made myself in 2004 from hachiya persimmons off my grandparents’ tree in Redding. Another came from Scratch Brewing Co. in Illinois. This brewery is known for gleaning and crowdsourcing unusual, foraged and salvaged ingredients, often wild plants and mushrooms but also backyard tree fruits. Finally, several years ago, I tasted a persimmon beer made, fittingly, by Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax, which is a persimmon hotspot for suburban foragers. That beer was called Chazz Cat Rye, a strong beer aged in an oak chardonnay barrel and infused with persimmons gleaned from a small local orchard. The brewery’s owner, Mike Altman, said it was “divine.” (My memory fails me and my tasting notes are long gone.)

What I remember of my own persimmon beer—it was modeled after Anchor’s Liberty Ale, and the persimmons came as an afterthought—is that the fruit didn’t exactly jump out at you. This reflects the subdued, if elegant, aromatics of the persimmon, which is faintly redolent of nutmeg, maple and honey. The flavor is similarly delicate, and the experience of eating a jelly-soft hachiya or chocolate persimmon is one of texture and sugar as much as, if not more than, one of flavor and aroma. I suspect ramping up the proportional addition of persimmon would help bring out its furtive character.

In general, I consider fruit used in beer to be more or less squandered. And each November, after another year of watching the handful of seasonal fruit beers come and go—cherry, peach, watermelon, mango, citrus—it astounds me that so many brewers gravitate toward the homely pumpkin to call forth the fall, while hundreds of thousands of those rosy red persimmons drop to the earth, as they’re doing now. Just listen: Splat, splat, splat.