Killing the Dark Fruit Demon

by Billy Broas


There’s a very naughty word I like to use.

“Dark fruit”

It comes up repeatedly when I’m describing beer. Like, “I get dark fruit up front…”

In my defense, I’m not alone. A search for the term on Beer Advocate yields over 765,000 results.

What’s the problem with it? It’s a terrible way to describe beer! What does it mean anyways? Plums? Raisins? Overly ripe bananas?

All of these are dark fruits and they taste radically different. The term is too vague.

Exercise the demon

You probably don’t care about this trivial issue, which is good because it means you’re normal.

But I’m doing this BJCP thing and am knee deep in beer tasting. First it was testing for bitterness genes, and now this.

In an effort to become more specific in descibring beer (which I must do in the BJCP exam), I decided to find out what I actually meant when I said “dark fruit.”

Plum, dates, figs, raisins, prunes

What a beer geek eats for dinner


I found most of my ammunition in the bulk bins at Whole Foods. $5 later I had what I needed:

  • Plums
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Raisins
  • Prunes

Eating these side by side revealed how flawed the “dark fruit” comment really is. They’re all very different.

I wish I could offer you advice here and tell you how they taste, but I can’t. This is as granular as it gets. A plum tastes like a damn plum. You need to do the work.

What I can tell you is that I’ve tasted all of these flavors in beer, though not to the same degree. The prune and raisin flavors turn up more than the others. I was mainly reminded of Belgian dubbels and quads while eating these.

Also, figs rock.

So I can’t promise that I’ll never say the D.F. phrase again, but the therapy helped. When I feel it creeping up I’ll stop and think of what I’m really tasting and try to be more specific.

Do you suffer from the “dark fruit” demon?

p.s. Thanks to Gary Vaynerchuck and his video for inspiring this effort.

p.p.s. If you try this tasting, you’ll stay regular for weeks. You’re welcome.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

John Verive April 20, 2012 at 11:34 am

I am guilty of the “dark fruit” blanket description, though it is something I’m conscious of and TRY to avoid. The problem is I’m not a huge fan of that family of flavors, so it is hard for me to get more granular. That said, the Anchor Porter that I had a couple days ago was unbelievably and undeniably fig-y. It was also delicious, so it goes to show you that you never know how your palette will react to flavors, even ones that you dont think you will like.

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Billy Broas April 23, 2012 at 11:33 am

I’ll have to go back and try Anchor Porter. I love figs.

Good point about how your palate reacts to flavors. It’s not only the flavors themselves, but the surrounding flavors that influence your reaction.

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Sheppy April 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I am guilty as well. Your argument can be made for hop aromas and flavors, and I am sure other descriptors as well. I will try to make an effort to do better. Sometimes, though, it is easier to just say “dark fruit” and not try to figure which of the dark fruits you are talking about. :-)

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Billy Broas April 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

Yea the context is important. If it’s something like Untappd then I’m not as worried about saying dark fruit. On a BJCP score sheet I will try to avoid it though, even though at the NHC 1st round last weekend I noticed almost every judge used the term ; )

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David Ivey April 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Billy,

Hats off to you on the BJCP test. Go for it. That’s over the top for me right now. How do you describe D.F. and so many other flavors and aromas? A very good question. I’m still learning and enjoying the process. But, I expect to see your name soon as a BCJP.

Cheers!
David Ivey

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Billy Broas April 23, 2012 at 11:35 am

Thanks David. I’ve still got a ways to go – the exam is in March 2013. That’s the earliest we could schedule it but I will need all that time to study.

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John April 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Hi Billy,

I’m really enjoying this series of articles about tasting beer. It’s something that’s important to home brewing but very difficult to pin down. So congratulations for attempting it!

If you don’t mind, I have a question: why is it that beer flavour is described in terms of fruit at all?

Describing taste using words isn’t easy and it’s useful to have a reference point in the form of something recognisable. Fruit, like beer, contains a combination of sweet and sharp (bitter) flavours, so I suppose from that point of view it makes sense. However, most beer doesn’t contain plums, dates etc.

I realise this is one of those difficult to answer questions, but it would be interesting to know what you think. During your studies, have you come across a reason why beer develops these flavours?

Cheers,

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Billy Broas April 23, 2012 at 11:43 am

Hey John, I really think there are two parts to your question: Why we use food terms to describe beer and why beer has these flavors in the first place.

I think you already answered the first one – we need a reference point to describe the flavor to other people. A common language is important when communicating beer characteristics, and fruit is something we’re all familiar with.

The second part is more technical and I admit I don’t know the exact pathways for the fruit flavors. Some come from the yeast (e.g. esters in hefeweizens that give banana and clove flavors) and some come from the malt and hops. I know for a fact that Special B malt gives off a raisin flavor.

Descriptors aren’t limited to fruit though. I often use terms like bready (a grain) and buttery (dairy). Fruits are the most common though.

Good questions.

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JayZeis April 23, 2012 at 6:21 am

I am guilty of using the DF phrase. I hope to someday break the habit, maybe the same day I give up drinking. Anywho, every once in a while I think about what it means to me, and I have found that many times I use the phrase it is basically for raisin and prune flavors, as those are the ones that blend together really well. I am able to find the plum and fig tastes separately, yet the date seems to avoid me, maybe I just don’t pick it up. So for me, DF means both raisin and prune, but to each their own.

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Billy Broas April 23, 2012 at 11:47 am

I’m with you on the term mainly meaning raisins and prunes. This exercise also taught me that beer tasting really takes work. The differences in the fruit are so obvious when they’re side by side but when they’re in a beer they are much harder to separate. I think if a beer had a strong date character I would notice it though. It’s pretty distinct.

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