Freebridge Wine & Spirits in the Delaware River town of Phillipsburg, New Jersey, is named for the nearby Northampton Street Bridge, which connects Phillipsburg and Easton and has no toll (it’s a free bridge).
According to Beer Menus, it carried Chapeau Banana, my own personal white whale.
Chapeau is a brand of sweetened lambics by the Belgian Brouwerij De Troch. They brew, among others, an apricot beer, a peach beer, and a lemon beer. Chapeau Banana one of the more frequently reviewed beers online. And boy, does it get reviews … like a 7 at RateBeer. Out of 100.
Wrote Danish reviewer “madsberg”: “Well, this was a mistake.”
I had become attracted to beer brewed with exotic ingredients, and banana was tops on the list. This may be because I’m a Belgian beer fanatic, and I frequently tasted banana at the tail end of a sip of a hefeweizen or tripel. Only in time did I learn banana is a typical off-flavor in those beers, caused by high-temperature fermentation producing increased esters. At the extreme, these esters have a solvent-like taste, but even a more mellow banana flavor can be considered a problem by professional beer tasters.
Either way, those esters always felt like a sweet treat at the end of a warm sip. But I never tasted a beer purposefully using banana as a main ingredient. So I went on the search.
Banana Nut Brown not only went into regular rotation, it became the flagship.”
There are a few banana beers out there, but most aren’t readily available in America. Mongozo, out of the Netherlands, has one, and Banana Investments Ltd. in Tanzania makes Raha. Banana beer is also popular in other parts of East Africa, though you can’t find any actual product from there besides Raha. Then there’s Chapeau, the closest I’ve come to seeing a banana-first beer in America.
Two years ago a friend brought me a couple bottles of the most well-known banana-flavored beer to Americans, Wells Banana Bread, brewed by Wells & Young Ltd. of Great Britain. I drank one, made a bunch of faces, and kept the second in the refrigerator for two years.
But one afternoon recently, my wife and I stopped at Kuka Brewing Co. in Blauvelt, New York. Lo and behold, Kuka made a banana beer. It made me think about the Wells Banana Bread sitting quietly in the fridge, the esters of the Belgian beers, and if a great banana beer was hiding right in plain sight.
“I didn’t like Wells Banana Bread,” said Andria Petito, general manager of the Andean Brewing Co., which produces the Kuka brand with a mission of utilizing Andean/Peruvian ingredients in much of its portfolio. Sometime around 2013, Petito had that bottle of Wells Banana Bread, which looks sweet in a glass and tastes exactly like banana bread (or a barrel of overripe bananas).
Wanting something better, Petito came up with the idea for Kuka Banana Nut Brown. Kuka hustled it into the festival circuit in 2013, raised eyebrows and won fans. They thought it was a one-time deal until those same festival fans cried for more in 2014. Banana Nut Brown not only went into regular rotation, it became the flagship.
Today it’s brewed by Kuka brewmaster Alex Coronado, and it’s the best banana-included beer I’ve tasted. The malts smooth out the sweetness while producing complementary flavors like roasted nuts and dark chocolate. It’s an unusual flavor profile, but it’s balanced.
“That’s the one idea I had,” said Petito.
I shot back: “But it was your best idea.”
She cackled. “I got lucky there.”
As much as I liked Kuka Banana Nut Brown, I really wanted a beer that showcased banana without chocolate, nuts, or bread. That’s when I found Chapeau Banana and Freebridge Wine & Spirits and made a Tuesday night drive out to the Delaware River.
I arrived and told the shopkeeper about my search. He wrinkled his brow.
“I don’t think we have that one anymore.”
He looked a little harder. He didn’t have it.
Defeated, I wondered if we had ourselves become beer zombies, chasing the same thing in unison (“HOPS!” “HAZE!”). Why did I have to look to some odd lambic in Belgium for my banana beer fix and pay the $35 shipping fee to actually get my hands on a bottle? Even though Kuka treated the fruit with the respect it finally deserved, why wasn’t there one American brewer that stood up and screamed “This is a banana beer without nuts or bread or chocolate! Enjoy!”
Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we beer drinkers will only go so far.
King Pepto was a letdown, and not just because there was very little banana to be found within.”
“I think it’s just not a very sexy flavor for beer drinkers,” said Petito. She was right; peel away the layers and bananas are almost treacly sweet and mushy. And they rot quickly. They’re not a good spotlight ingredient.
If you’ve had one American beer with banana, you’ve probably had Rogue’s Voodoo Doughnut Chocolate, Banana and Peanut Butter Ale, part of that partnership with the famous Portland, Oregon, shop that has given us questionable releases. I wanted to taste it again for this experiment – that beer would have to do. I now wanted the bright pink bottle of Chocolate, Banana & Peanut Butter, or as I like to call any of those Voodoo Doughnuts bottles, King Pepto.
Freebridge may not have had Chapeau, but it did have a box with those bright pink bottles just peeking out. My shopkeeper appeared from the basement with a King Pepto. He slammed it on the bar. The couple near me chuckled. They knew.
King Pepto pours almost black like a stout. And the taste is overwhelmingly chocolate, but a milkier chocolate than the Kuka. Behind that is some swill, a combination of peanut butter and banana, but it’s mostly peanut butter. Then it dies.
Like the other Voodoo Doughnuts beers, Chocolate, Banana & Peanut Butter tastes like ingredients for the sake of ingredients, and when that happens, you may lose what actually makes the beer distinct. King Pepto was a letdown, and not just because there was very little banana to be found within.
I’m still hunting. At least I bought an anniversary beer for my wife at Freebridge.
It’s a tripel. I’ll always have esters.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.