Latest Craft Brews Inspired by Far More Than Hops

Brews are taking inspiration from the garden, spice cupboard and even the sea.

July 12, 2013— -- With microbrew enthusiasm taking over most of the Western world and beer coming into its own as a "foodie" tipple, craft brews are taking more and more inspiration from the garden, orchard, spice cupboard and even the sea. Flavor combinations you would have only seen on a plate five years ago are now on tap – or in the bottle. Some are more drinkable than others, but you've got to love the experimental bent of these food-inspired brews.

Fruity Beers

Well into their second decade as a supermarket staple , these are often sneered at as "beer for girls," but plenty of men will enjoy a Pyramid Apricot Ale or Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat on a hot summer day when his friends aren't around to judge him. And limited-edition beers like Samuel Smith Organic Strawberry and Shipyard Smashed Blueberry win rave reviews even from the avid amateur critics on comment boards.

Peppery Beers

Heat-seeking eat feats are all the rage among a certain type of adventurous foodie, so it's no wonder that people have started incorporating chiles into beer as well. In New Mexico, where locals proudly eat green chile with absolutely everything (burgers, pizza, breakfast, chiles on other chiles) Taos Green Chile Beer from Eske's Brew Pub is available in many establishments including the Albuquerque airport.

People who want a little more zing need to look – and this is admittedly a surprise – outside the Southwest. The Tri-Pepper Pilsener by Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Wisconsin and the Jalapeno Pepper Ale are two heat-seeking beers from the Great Lakes region. Rogue Ales in Oregon puts out a Chipotle Ale in spring. But the fieriest of all may be the Ghost Face Killah, coming out of Twisted Pine Brewing in Colorado. Six chile peppers go into this wheat-based brew, including the Scoville scale-topping Ghost Pepper.

Breakfast Beers

Always out to turn heads with its irreverent but culturally savvy branding, Rogue got a lot of attention for its Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale. Not all of it was positive; in fact a lot of people swore this was proof that the bacon-and-sweets pairing combo had jumped the shark. But among beer drinkers, there's a contingent who enjoy this smoky-sweet-bacony brew…and its distinctive candy pink bottle too!

Slightly less outrageous than Rogue's foray into breakfast-food beers is the UK's Wells Banana Bread Beer. It's limited production but definitely not a gimmick, and gets fairly steady ratings as a better-than-average beer – which indeed tastes remarkably similar to banana bread.

The granddaddy of all breakfast beers, though, is the oatmeal stout. This beer style has its roots in medieval times. The earliest labeled bottle of oatmeal stout used porridge oats in the brewing process, underscoring the popular opinion that it was an acceptable breakfast food. Sadly, we now know better. Modern oatmeal stout is a dark beer-lover's favorite for its body, and smooth mouth feel. We have Samuel Smith's to thank for bringing it to grocery store shelves and inspiring many young microbrewers to try their own version.

Dessert Beers

When done well, beers can incorporate all sorts of ice-cream-and-cakey flavors and still turn out well balanced and delicious. Chocolate stout is the style that seduces most people into the dessert beer world. It's dark, and rich, and many breweries including Rogue, Samuel Smith, Harpoon and Young's have perfected their own version of it.

Beers on the vanilla end of the spectrum are also worth seeking out – and in fact, you may have to do some seeking, because most places tend to whip up vanilla porter on a whim (usually because they've acquired a few high-quality vanilla beans) and sell out very quickly. Vanilla Porter from Breckenridge Brew Pub and Stone Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean are both readily available at specialty retailers year-round.

The piece de resistance among dessert brews might be Shorts Carrot Cake beer out of Bellaire, Mich. It doesn't seem like an obvious winner, but critics and fans agree it's spicy, sweet, rich, and gets the carrot cake flavor right on the nose…yes, even the icing.

And In a Category All Its Own…

Here's a seafoody secret that dark beer connoisseurs have been onto for a hundred years : Oyster stout is a palate-pleaser. A handful of oyster shells (or whole oysters) dropped into a brew batch adds a subtle yet yummy marine undertone—perfectly complementary to stout. Domestically, Abita uses freshly shucked local oysters in its Imperial Louisiana Oyster Stout. 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco uses Hog Island sweetwater oyster shells to make its Marooned on Hog Island stout.