There have been a few mentions of currants and ribes floating around in a few posts. I have been growing several varieties over the past few years, so I thought I'd share my thoughts and experiences:
I have red, pink and black currants growing, as well as both red and green gooseberries. They are quite easy to grow. This is my third year and I'm getting about 2 pounds from each of my currant bushes, despite heavy pruning last fall. One thing to note is that most Ribes varieties are susceptible to white pine blister rust, so they are restricted or banned in many areas. Even if you are able to find an online supplier that will ship them to you (hint, hint
), use good judgement whether it would it would be the best idea for your local flora to introduce Ribes plants.
My gooseberries aren't yielding quite as much, but I have been pruning them quite a bit until I figure out how I want to train the bushes. They grow a lot more like vines than the currants, which are well-behaved little bushes. Gooseberries have nasty thorns that put blackberries to shame.
Red/Pink Currants - these are like a cross between a tomato and a pomegranate aril to me, both in flavor and seediness. Pink currants are just a variety of red currants. They have less tomato and are sweeter than red currants. I find these suitable for eating out of hand (more so than red ones), but they are seedy enough where I wouldn't want to eat a mass quantity. I am planning on syrup from my red currants this season, and they make a decent jelly as well. For brewing applications, my best guess would be a Flanders Red, many of which have a touch of a ketchup thing going already (at least to my palate).
Red Gooseberries - I haven't been getting a lot off of mine, but they rarely make it indoors from the garden. The inner flesh is very similar to a blueberry - sweet, fleshy and mild. Then the skin has this great sweet-tart flavor to it. It does have a bit of muskiness, which I enjoy, but might not be everyone's tastes.
Green Gooseberries - more tart than their Red cousins. They're good for pies and jams. If I were making a gooseberry beer, I'd probably use the green ones. I think they'd be pretty good in a saison. Mikkeller makes an excellent gooseberry lambic.
Black Currants - this is the one that gets thrown around the most in homebrewing as a flavor descriptor for hops. All parts of the plant have a distinct musky/spicy aroma. To me, it is much closer to the aroma of tomato stems than cat pee, but I guess I can see where the descriptor comes from. I guess that is a perception issue that varies from nose to nose.
If you can get your hands on a fresh black currant, by all means try it. I find the fresh berries to be distinctly different than juices or jams. That musky note just isn't the same once they're processed, IMO. Don't get me wrong, eating a fresh black current is not a particularly enjoyable experience - it is bitter, tart and tannic. But it is certainly eye-opening of you haven't had one.
As far as brewing applications go, you see black currant in a lot of commercial meads, and it's a great fit there. It adds some tannins and tartness that rounds out a berry melomel nicely. I've also had a fantastic lambic from Hanssens Artisanaal that used black currant. Of all my ribes plants, this is the one I had more of. I'd really like to use quite a bit of these in my sour beers. I'm debating whether to store this year's harvest until next year in hopes of having enough saved up over 2 seasons to use to secondary a beer on, or to make a syrup to add to a Berliner Weisse (among other things).
One other idea is to use them in a Pale Ale or IPA. I've read from some articles in the perfume industry that the blackcurrant aroma pairs well with rose, so it seems like it would fit well with New World hops that already exhibit currant-like flavors, as well as sharing many of the essential oils that are present in roses.