Tomatoes might not be the first ingredient that comes to mind when you think of a refreshing summer ale, but for the past three summers, Tom Troncone, owner and brewer of Muckraker Beermaker in Franklin, has turned to the beloved Jersey fruit (often thought of as a vegetable), to make his Insalata farmhouse ale. He adds his own twist to this traditional summer beer by flavoring it with tomatoes and white pepper.
“I lean heavily into using local fruits [in my beers],” says Troncone, who also sources blueberries, blackberries and peaches from local farms each summer. Tomatoes are an obvious candidate for brewing, he says, as “we grow massive quantities” in New Jersey.
Last year, tomatoes were one of the top crops grown in the state, accounting for around $48 million in production value. Of the nearly 80 million pounds of tomatoes harvested here each year, only a few hundred go to Troncone.
“I don’t treat tomatoes differently than any other fruit,” he says. At Muckraker, Troncone specializes in lambics, a type of Belgian beer that often incorporates fruit—cherries, raspberries, grapes and now tomatoes—into the recipe.
To make Insalata, Troncone hunts down the ripest, freshest Jersey tomatoes—which means he can make it only in summer. In July, he looks to farms in South Jersey. By August, North Jersey is likely better.
He makes a traditional farmhouse ale using Jersey-grown barley and wheat and macerates the Jersey tomatoes in the brew with white pepper, which is milder than black and imparts a floral note.
Don’t expect the resulting beer to resemble a Bloody Mary or michelada (a cocktail of Mexican beer, lime juice, tomato juice and hot sauce). When poured in the glass, it looks like any other farmhouse ale, usually blonde or gold in color.
Troncone describes his Insalata as “thirst quenching,” clocking in at a relatively low ABV of around 5-6 percent. When tasting the beer, tomato isn’t the first flavor you’d think of. Its presence is rather subdued, evoking a fresh essence of summer rather than a literal taste of tomato purée.
“People expect it to taste like a V8 tomato juice, but it’s fairly light,” he says. “After all, I’m macerating fresh tomatoes, not using tomato sauce.”
Troncone isn’t the only brewer honoring the Garden State’s star crop this summer. Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands uses tomatoes as an ingredient in its salted pale ale, called Panzanella. Also featuring Summit hops and cucumbers, it’s meant to evoke the summery salad of the same name—and would pair wonderfully with the real dish during a picnic or outdoor barbecue.
Similarly, Screamin’ Hill Brewery in Cream Ridge grows their own heirloom tomatoes each summer to make their Heirloom ale, featuring fresh basil and a touch of sea salt. It’s been quite the hit. After a couple of years selling it only on draft in the tasting room, Screamin’ Hill plans to make it available in cans for the first time this month.
If you’re feeling iffy on tomato-inspired brews, go ahead and give them a try. After all, along with sweet corn, blueberries and peaches, nothing says summer in Jersey better than a perfect, ripe tomato—and now, possibly, a tomato beer.Click here to leave a comment