The Amazing Stories of Persimmons in Craft Beer

The Amazing Stories of Persimmons in Craft Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We’re in the tail end of the harvest season; we give thanks for what the Earth provides us with, and celebrate what we can do to expand on Nature’s gifts. The corn is all in, the barley is harvested so we can make more beer, and the pumpkins, apples, and squash have been picked. Thanksgiving last week was a time to reflect on the hard work we have done on the farm and off of it, and we continue to be grateful for all we have.

In Indiana, we have even more fall produce to choose from and be thankful for. Pawpaws are native to Indiana, as are crabapples and blackberries, but the fruit I want to talk about today is the persimmon. The persimmon is an old fruit (OK, it’s technically not a fruit but rather a berry), used for hundreds of years throughout the world, but no where is it as ingrained as in Indiana (and perhaps Japan). The evidence for this is as plain as the town of Mitchell, where the Persimmon Festival has been held every year since 1947.

The persimmon goes back to ancient Greece, where the Greek name Diospyros, means “Zeus’ wheat.” Through the Latin, it came to be translated as “food of the gods,” while in the Americas, the local name “persimmon” comes from Powhatan language and means simply “dried fruit.” It is grown in many countries around the world, but China supplies 43% of the world’s persimmon. Even in Indiana, if you buy the larger persimmons in the grocery store, they are likely from China.

There are several species of persimmon, with the Japanese (D. kaki) being the most wide spread, and the native to America version (D. Virginiana) being smaller, longer to ripen, later ripening, and more astringent if eaten less than totally ripe. American persimmons grow best in southern Indiana, but can be grown throughout the state, and then they’re used for puddings (in my house growing up), pies, cakes, cookies, and for the purposes of today’s article – in craft beer.

image credit: Upland Brewing

Persimmon in craft beer. It isn’t just in Indiana where craft beer has taken to using the persimmon, UnTappd has an extensive list of persimmon containing beers, not counting all the beers made by Persimmon Hollow Brewing in DeLand, FL of all places. Closer to home, Upland Brewing is famous for its Persimmon Sour, a more traditional sour in their Persimmon Slip (a true lambic), and the HopPerPaw with persimmon, pawpaw, and is dry-hopped with mosaic hops.

These might be some of the best-known persimmon beers from Indiana, but they aren’t the only ones by a long shot. Bloomington Brewing Company has been making a persimmon ale as a winter seasonal every year since 2012. Each year they use over 100 pounds of wild-picked, Indiana persimmons and finish the ale with cinnamon and nutmeg. Several years ago Black Acre Brewing made a Kentucky Common with persimmon called Persimmon Crapshoot.

Mostly recently, Walter and I have had two persimmon ales at the fall beer fests this year and in the taprooms. The Gene Persimmons from Cannon Ball Brewing in Indianapolis is a spiced saison with persimmon that adds a huge amount of body to the beer as well as flavor. Then there is a slightly smoked beer from The Tap Brewery in Bloomington (notice that I’ve now mentioned three different Bloomington breweries that use persimmons) called Smoky Persimmon. This beer combines some sweet smoked malt with the persimmon with a bit less spice than the other versions.

The flavors imparted by the persimmon are rich and honey like, with a tendency toward the most delicate of dates or even pumpkin. The sugars (lots of fructose and more complex sugars) and soluble dietary fiber give beers made with persimmon an unctuous mouthfeel and make them seem bigger than they are. But then there are the tannins – persimmons eaten before they are ripe are likely to be very astringent. The tannins are reduced as the fruit ripens and the astringency is hidden as the sweetness grows, but there is still a fair amount of tannin in there – and this leads us to our next subject for persimmons in beer.

Why persimmon beers are so bright. In craft beer terms, beers that you can read newsprint through are considered to be “bright.” You could just as easily call them clear, but why use a simple word when you can use a more complicated one. Actually, “brite beer” is technically the term for beer when the yeast is dropped and it starts to clear, although the beer will continue to get clearer as it sits at low temperature in the brite tank, or if it is filtered or treated with a fining agent.

image credit: Bloomington Brewing Co.

If beer is crystal clear and glass-like, it can be called brilliant. The interesting thing to me with respect to persimmon beers is that they are so bright, when most fruit beers are usually kind of hazy, especially when pulp or whole fruit are used as opposed to juices. I started to wonder if there is something about persimmons that would clear beer well. And weirdly enough, a pathologic condition clued me in to a possible answer.

Certain foods (and non-foods) can create hard indigestible concretions in the stomach called bezoars. People who eat hair can end up with trichobezoars (tricho- meaning hair), while plant material can form a phytobezoar. Not all plants will lead to this, although a couple of plants more noted for creating them are pineapples and persimmons, especially when the fruits are less than totally ripe. This is where the tannins and soluble fiber come in.

Unripened persimmons have all those tannins and fibers, and when they mix with stomach acids they form a glue-like substance that traps many complexes and macromolecules and can then form into a bezoar over time. It usually comes when someone eats a large number of less than ripe persimmons over a short period of time. The glue-like substance was what I honed in on. Fermenting and finished beer is acidic (pH 4-6) and yeast produce many organic acids, so it isn’t that different from the stomach (about pH2.0 when digesting, but 3.5 – 4.5 when not working on a full meal).

Gelatin, irish moss, and other fining agents can be used to make beer bright. It turns out persimmons work great for this. image credit: Brulosophy

I decided to consult a food scientist to see if clearing due to persimmons might be a real thing in beer, and if yes, why it might be happening. Jeanette Jensen, a Research Scientist and Brewing Chemist and Analyst at Purdue University, agrees that this is really a thing. She said, “I would attribute additional clarification potential to the high tannic acid content in this fruit. Persimmons contain a high concentration of soluble tannins; the riper the fruit the lower the concentration, but it is these soluble phenolic compounds that can complex with proteins and other macromolecules present causing further protein precipitation and ‘clarification’ or additional refining potential of the beer.” Sometimes persimmons are so good at it that they clear beer more than desired. The brewers at Bloomington Brewing told me that they were actually looking for a slightly hazy beer from their persimmon ale, but it kept coming out clear.

This is different than many explanations in beer saying that tannin-protein complexes can promote haze in beer, but in the case of persimmons perhaps the additional compounds and formation of that sticky substance goes further to promote clearing. Walter and I mentioned this to a couple of guys we met in Evansville who were looking to home brew a persimmon beer and one of the told us that persimmons are actually used as a fining agent in the production of sake. He was right, they call it shibu, and it is a fining agent made from unripened astringent persimmons because they have the highest levels of tannins. The juice of the fruits is pressed out, fermented and aged; then it is used for clearing proteins from sake and other foods, as a tanning agent, and as a dye. Shibu complexes with many proteins and helps them drop out of solution.

The other thing that this process may account for in beers with persimmon is our recent observation that persimmon beers tend to pour smaller heads and they tend to dissipate faster. This is also most probably related to the clearing of lipid transfer protein-1 complexes that are so important for coating foam bubbles to make them more durable. Of course there can be a point where you use so much persimmon, and the pulp can overcome the clearing and promote more haze and more head. Indeed, some very old beer recipes use only persimmon fruit to make an alcoholic beverage.

Beer can be made with just persimmons, but it has to be strained a bunch. image credit:

Persimmon beer. Poor and prominent communities alike in early America used persimmons to ferment an alcoholic drink. In this case, the persimmons alone were used, with the fructose in the fruit being a good source of fermentable sugar. It was called beer, but was really more like a wine, sherry, or liquor.

The fruits would be boiled in water for a good period, and then mashed to a pulp. Straining several times would yield a sugar containing liquid that might be supplemented with honey or sugar. Putting this in an open jug with some yeast allowed for fermentation, and more pulp or sugar could be added in more water to keep the fermentation going as liquor is poured off over the weeks.

Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond, VA resurrected this type of beer in late 2014, as a collaboration with the Virginia Historical Society. The recipe was based on the writings of a farm girl named Jane in the 1700s, so the beer was known as Jane’s Persimmon Beer. On the down side, finding as many persimmons as they could led to only about three gallons of beer, so true persimmon beers are pretty fruit intensive. Perhaps we’ll stick with using persimmons as a flavoring for beer; they taste and look great even if they’re mostly barley.

I encourage you to seek out persimmon beers where ever you are. If you can drink beer with Indiana persimmons, all the better. They add flavor, body, and their biochemistry is just about as interesting as it gets. Plus, they make a great break from all those pumpkin beers and marzens in the fall. That alone is a reason to try them out.

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