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Everything(?) You Want to Know About Blood Oranges and Beer

Image via Flickr user SummerTomato under a Creative Commons license.

What is beer?

Beer is an intoxicating beverage primarily concocted of malted grains, hops, water, and yeast. It has been brewed for thousands of years and is consumed widely across the globe. Depending on adjustments to each of the four primary ingredients, as well as the optional addition of any number of other adjuncts, a wide variety of styles can be produced. These styles present with a huge array of aromas, aesthetics, and flavor profiles, many of which have become strongly associated with certain geographic areas or cultures (e.g., west coast American IPAs, German lagers, Belgian Trappist ales.

What are blood oranges?

Blood orange (Citrus x sinensis, sinensis from the Latin for Chinese) is a variety of orange (which are themselves fruits that are orange and from which orange juice comes) that derives its name from its distinctive crimson flesh. These oranges, according to Wikipedia, may have originated in either the Southern Mediterranean or China, two places that are pretty close to each other if you disregard the roughly 9,500 kilometers between them. Blood oranges have been grown since the 18th century, which makes them way older than any DC area brewery in case you’re keeping score. Blood oranges get their distinctive color from anthocyanin, which is an antioxidative red pigment that also causes people to flock to watch leaves change in New England every fall. In terms of flavor, many Internet sources note that blood oranges have a “raspberry” like flavor, which is confusing as hell because pick an identity and stick with it, blood oranges.

Do blood oranges grow in the United States?

Yes, you can find blood oranges growing where you can find other citrus growing. That includes southern California, the Gulf Coast of Texas, and Florida. These areas grow the three major cultivars of blood orange, but we’ll spare you because those won’t be on the quiz.

Are beer and blood oranges having a moment right now?

Oh yeah.

Why are beer and blood oranges having a moment right now?

Well, the short answer is because blood orange and beer often taste pretty good together. As Lagunitas’ MidCentral Eastern-ish Regional Vice Captain for Zymurgicological Quality Control Sampling and Supply-Vectored Beverage Implementation (not kidding, that's the real title) Tommy Hunter notes, the combination provides “not overwhelming sweet character with some tartness that is balanced.”

The longer answer about why we’re seeing a lot of beer and blood orange combos is because this happens a lot in the craft beer world. Circa 2010 everyone was making black IPA. Since then we’ve seen a number of trends arrive: white IPA, session IPA, gose, bars and restaurants using Edison bulbs, young breweries jumping too quickly to using non-Saccharomyces yeasts, and radlers, to name just a few. Some of these had their time in the sun and then went away, others are still with us. The point is that craft beer styles, like other industries, products, and behaviors, have tipping points. Breweries see something come out in the market, they see consumers’ reactions to it, and they think either (optimistically) “whoa, that sounds pretty sweet, I bet it’d be cool to brew that” or (cynically) “I need to brew that because if I don’t have one of these (e.g., session IPAs) I’ll be behind on getting a piece of the sales” or (realistically) some combination of these two previous reasons.

How prevalent are blood orange beers?

The infestation isn’t so bad that you need to have your house sprayed or anything, but there are way more blood orange beers than I realized. BeerAdvocate returns 104 beers in a search for “blood orange” while RateBeer shows more than 100 but won’t show me a second page of search results and I’m not figuring out the exact number because you get the idea. There’s a lot of them. There’s a wide variety of breweries who have made a beer with blood orange; it doesn’t look like these were often year-round parts of these breweries’ portfolios, instead it seems like these were one-off versions of established beers (e.g., Stone Cali-Belgique on Coriander, Blood Orange Peel, and Cinnamon) or seasonals. Stylistically, blood orange shows up most often (but not exclusively) in these searches in witbiers, hefeweizens, IPAs, and saisons.

Why does this combination work?

Let me say first that I am not a scientist, and so I’m probably not super well equipped to answer this question. (If you want some real science-y takes on beer, be sure to check out Matt Humbard’s blog, which is an excellent resource. Humbard is a co-owner of the forthcoming Handsome Brewing Company.)

My caveats about my science failures aside, the combination works because many of the beer styles that we commonly see blood orange placed into already have fairly citrusy flavor profiles. Witbiers have long had bitter orange (Curacao orange) peel added to them. Many varieties of American hops (e.g., Cascade, Citra, Centennial, even Sorachi Ace) also are often described as having citrus/grapefruit notes.

The citrusy notes that hops impart come from an essential hop oil known as myrcene. Myrcene, according to Garrett Oliver’s inimitable The Oxford Companion to Beer, develops in the lupulin gland of hop cones. When it is put into beer, it produces a number of “floral, fruity, and citrusy compounds” like linalool (floral-citrusy), nerol (citrus, floral-fresh rose), citral (citrus-lemon-candy-like), and limonene (citrus-orange-lemon). These essential oils derived from hops are also found in citrus fruits like, you guessed it, blood orange. The two complement and augment each other for a more profound citrus taste and aroma.

What are some locally available beers with blood orange?

Flying Dog’s Bloodline Blood Orange Ale is probably the most well-known and widely available. It has its origins from the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference, which was held in DC. The original release is here. The beer was a collaboration with the Reyes Beverage Group (Premium Distributors). Craft Sales Manager Ryan Curley told us yesterday via Twitter that Nick Smith of New Belgium’s DC team apparently was the progenitor of the combo.

Beyond that, Lagunitas has a new edition to their “One Hitter” series (because of course they have a “One Hitter” series) called the Citrusinensis Pale Ale that should be around DC for a limited time.

Elysian also has a seasonal known as Superfuzz, which is a blood orange pale ale.

If you don’t want an IPA or a pale ale, check out Anderson Valley’s Blood Orange Gose, which is a tart, salty, citrusy blast. Their site says October-April, so that’s sad, but maybe you can still find some on the shelves.

Bluejacket has made at least two beers with blood orange: The Orange Line, a blood orange wit, and Tiger Tale, a Belgian strong ale with 100 pounds of blood oranges. Neither, to my knowledge, is available right now or has been re-brewed.

What else are we missing? Let us know in the comments, but these some that come immediately to mind.

If you can't (or won't) drink beer, but still want to get in on the fun, check out Sanpellegrino's tasty blood orange soda.

What’s the next “blood orange beer”?

It’s hard to say. Gose is having its day in the sun right now too, and I’m guessing that its reach will be a little bit more expansive than blood orange beers before all is said and done. While I can’t predict what the next beer/beer style that “everyone” (note: not everyone) will be brewing, it’s worth noting that a lot of the recent beer trends mentioned above (white IPA, session IPA, radler, gose) trend toward being more accessible and “drinkable” to a wider audience than not. Done right, these beers are pretty refreshing with familiar, approachable flavors that appeal to people beyond beer geeks. This makes sense considering the motives I mentioned above: the reason that breweries hop (pun so intended) on these opportunities are that when a beer style like this “tips” it gives the brewery a chance to either tap into a lot of consumers with a popular style or capitalize on a lucrative trend or both. I feel pretty confident in saying that the next “trend” beer will not be something in the mold of, for example, double-digit chocolate & bourbon porters and stouts, which would be both expensive to brew and interesting only to a narrow swath of consumers.

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