- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - The flavors produced in Jerry Lehman’s Vigo County orchard aren’t well known, but they’re desirable.

That’s why he’ll be a keynote speaker at an agricultural conference in Romania in three weeks. And that’s why Indiana’s second largest brewery uses Lehman’s fruits to concoct a pair of sour ales, a tart beverage gaining popularity among craft beer aficionados.

“I really believe the future of the pawpaw and persimmon markets is very bright,” Lehman said.

Both have long been backwoods novelties like morel mushrooms, another holy grail-caliber Hoosier delicacy. Both fruits are as American as apple pie, in fact, even more so. Apple pies actually emerged from England in the 14th century, according to What’s Cooking America. By contrast, the trees bearing pawpaws and persimmons are indigenous to the United States, growing wild in forests east of the Mississippi, including those flanking the Wabash River valley.

In 1989, Lehman decided to grow those fruits in his own grove as a creative outlet, tinkering with grafts and breeds along the way. Today, he and his wife, Barbara, tend to one of the country’s largest pawpaw patches, with 350 trees, as well as 1,000 persimmon trees. Each tree and fruit have unique qualities, Lehman explained.

That’s exactly what brewers at Upland Brewing Company in Bloomington wanted in 2013, when they began toying with the idea of adding pawpaw to their roster of sour ale flavors. Those sours - with their initial, pucker-inducing tang - are themselves unique among craft beers.

Traditional ales take two to three weeks brewing time, and lagers four to five weeks. Upland’s sours age in old wooden wine barrels for three months to three years, employing a “lambic” brewing style that originated centuries ago in Belgium. The longer fermentation and use of wild varieties of yeast have “created these sour, really funky, wild tastes,” said Pete Batule, Upland’s vice president of brewing operations.

Pawpaw, the fist-sized fruit with a banana custard taste, fit perfectly among Upland’s lineup of sour ale flavors, joining peach, blueberry, black raspberry, strawberry, cherry, (dried) mulberry, kiwi and persimmon, among others. The brewery, which also produces Champagne Velvet (the iconic brand from Terre Haute’s beer heyday), uses Lehman’s fruit to craft its pawpaw and persimmon sour ales.

Batule toured Lehman’s orchard on May 16, talking with the 81-year-old farmer and former Motorola TV service shop owner about the peculiarities of the fruits, their adaptability to brewing and Lehman’s upcoming journey to next month’s “Agriculture for Life and Life for Agriculture” conference at Bucharest, Romania.

The two men also realized they share a willingness to go through the trial-and-error process. Sometimes an attempt to breed a new fruit variety fails, such as the seedless pawpaw. “But it had to be tried,” Lehman emphasized. In Upland’s quest for new beer flavors, some simply didn’t work, Batule said.

“We do a lot of experimenting,” Lehman said, pointing to Batule as they walked between rows of pawpaw trees.

“There’s just a ton of innovation going on in the craft beer industry,” Batule responded. “It’s exciting.” Indeed, the number of craft beer breweries in Indiana - both large and small - jumped from 46 in 2011 to 127 this year, according to the Brewers Association. And they’re being adventurous. The No. 1 craft beer trend in 2017 is that “new” is consumers’ favorite flavor, meaning they’re anxious to experiment, too.

Pawpaws’ creamy taste, similar to tropical fruits such as papaya and mango, and the sweetness of persimmons are rare enough to intrigue those consumers’ quest for something new. They result in ales with a cidery flavor, “tart, sour and fruit-forward,” Batule said, with a crisp finish and little aftertaste. Upland’s Pawpaw and Persimmon sour ales - available only at the company’s Wood Shop sour brewery in Bloomington and its tasting room in Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple district - sell out within two weeks of their release, he added.

The quick consumption is partly because of the ales’ popularity, and partly because of Upland produces only small quantities of Pawpaw and Persimmon. The fruits are harder to find than peaches or hops. Plus, the pawpaws’ shelf life is short, three weeks or less, so they’re difficult to ship long distances. The short, 55-mile truck ride from Lehman’s farm to Upland minimizes that problem.

Most important, Lehman’s pawpaws and persimmons taste good.

“For us, the fact that we’ve got one of the best pawpaw beers out there is because of the quality of the fruit,” Batule said.

Lehman figures the topic of pawpaw and persimmon beers will come up at the agricultural conference in Romania. The event is being hosted by the University of Agronomic Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Bucharest. One of its participating faculty members, Florin Stanica, attended the International Pawpaw Conference in Kentucky last year, as did Lehman. Obviously, the interest in growing and consuming pawpaws and persimmons goes beyond their native region in the eastern U.S. Lehman will speak on their potential in Romania and Europe.

The more the two fruits are grown, the more people will eat, he predicted.

In the meantime, the Pawpaw and Persimmon ales from last fall’s harvest are just now ready for their spring release. In Lehman’s grove, the fruit buds are popping out on stems in the trees. Little reminders of why it’s good to be a Hoosier.

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Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/2rAOXiR

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Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com

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