Ripe for the drinking

The good and bad of Watermelon beers

21st Amendment Brewery’s Hell or High Watermelon.

21st Amendment Brewery’s Hell or High Watermelon.

Photo by Carolyn Fong

When I think of watermelons, I often think back to a day in early September 2011, when I ran out of food during a long day of bicycle travel in northwest Turkey. Around 2 p.m., after 40 miles running on empty and on the verge of collapsing, I came across a roadside farmer selling watermelons out of his parked pickup. I bought a 12-pounder for about two bucks, collapsed onto a bench with my Swiss Army knife, and demolished the entire thing in about 20 minutes.

Where hunger paralyzed me before, now I was too stuffed to move. I lay down and waited as my body absorbed the fruit and its goodness. Sugar became energy, and juice became water. Revitalizing energy surged into my veins and my muscles. Restored to life, I bounced back onto the bike and finished my ride.

I can only imagine how nice a watermelon beer might have tasted that day instead of the fruit itself. I can pretty much guess: It would have tasted amazing and probably would have gone down in my deluded memory as the best beer I’ve ever had—which may be more than has ever been said about a watermelon beer before.

Watermelon beers aren’t bad as a general rule. They can be nice and refreshing, but they’re rarely showstoppers. Paste Magazine did well in an article on the style in advance of the Fourth of July in which author Graham Averill said watermelon beers, “much like pumpkin beers … will often get a bad rap. Too sweet, too gimmicky, too obvious.” He went on to list a few must-try watermelon beers for the holiday, and he named only four. Indeed, watermelon beers can have a candy-like flavor—not good—and conceptually, they can come off as a summertime cliché.

While I suspect many watermelon beers have quietly come and gone as draft-only taproom beers, 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco seems to have cornered the market for packaged watermelon beers. Cans of its Hell or High Watermelon have been popular for many years and are produced April through September. Like most watermelon beers, Hell or High Watermelon is a wheat beer. That is the standard formula for the category—low-alcohol hefeweizens with watermelon purée or juice added during or after fermentation.

I’m usually not into formulaic beers, so I like it when breweries break out of the box a little. And 21st Amendment did just that this summer, releasing Watermelon Funk, more or less a stronger version of the same beer, soured with Lactobacillus bacteria. I picked up a six-pack recently. At almost 7 percent alcohol-by-volume, the beer packs a light punch, and the sourness nicely melds with, and perhaps offsets, the faint watermelon sweetness.

I also recently tasted the Watermelon Dorado from San Diego’s Ballast Point. Though the former craft brewery is now owned by the Corona company (Constellation Brands), I tried the beer because it’s not the usual wheat beer. Rather, it’s a 10 percent ABV double IPA with “natural watermelon flavors.” I like IPAs, and I gravitate toward “natural” foods, but this one was a slight disappointment—too much Jolly Rancher candy flavor.

According to a Twitter search, (Twitter is great for threatening war and for tracking food trends), many breweries around the country cashed in on the watermelon thing. They mostly made watermelon wheat beers, near as I can tell, and many of them likely are still dribbling out of summer taps, in case you’re thirsty—or half-dead from a long bike ride.