Brewing With Cherries (How Much, When To Add, and More!)

From traditional Belgian Krieks to chocolate cherry porters, cherries are a great addition to a wide range of beers. Whether you’re going for jammy, cherry pie flavors, or a tart zing, this fruit is a great option for your next batch of beer.

Add 1 to 2 lbs. of fresh cherries or cherry juice concentrate per gallon of beer during secondary fermentation for the quickest route to a bold cherry flavor. You can also add cherry flavor with canned and frozen cherries, or even extracts, syrups, or pureed cherry. Stouts, Chocolate Porters, Wietbiers, and ales all pair great with cherry.

Read on to learn other methods for adding cherry flavor to your beer, and to find out the best kind of cherries to choose when planning your next home brewing project!

What kind of beer uses cherries in the recipe?

Cherries are an essential ingredient in Kriek, a classic Belgian fruit lambic. Modern breweries have started to experiment with cherries in many other styles of beer too, from blonde ales to stouts and chocolate porters. 

Kriek lambic beers, named for the Flemish word for cherry, have been produced in Belgium for centuries. Tart, wild-fermented Lambics are rested on macerated cherries to add both a fruity sweetness and woody notes from the cherry pits

In addition to this classic choice, a number of craft breweries have begun experimenting with a wide range of cherry-flavored beers, especially in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the majority of American cherries are grown. 

Styles that blend well with tart cherries include: 

  • Stouts
  • Chocolate Porters
  • Blond Ales
  • Dark Ales
  • Wheat beers & Berliner Weisses
  • Flemish red and brown ales

What kind of cherries should you use when brewing?

When it comes to selecting a type of cherry for brewing, you’ll have to consider both the cultivar of the cherry and the method of preparation.

For the best results, you should select a sour cherry from the Prunus cerasus species. The preparation you choose will depend on the style of beer and the amount of sugar you want to introduce into your brew.

With more than 1200 types of cherries in the world, there are plenty of options available for brewing. Of these, all cherries are split into two main groups:

  • Sweet Cherries (Prunus avium)
  • Tart Cherries (Prunus cerasus)

While sweet cherries are great for eating, tart cherries are the perfect option for baking, jam, and brewing beer. Here are some of the varieties of Prunus cerasus that are especially prized for brewing.

Cherries by variety

  • Schaerbeek – Schaerbeek cherries are native to the Senne River Valley in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. These small, dark cherries with large pits were the original cherry used for brewing Krieks. 
  • Gorsem – As the demand for Kriek outpaced the production of Schaerbeek cherries, brewers began to use Gorsem cherries, another dark sour cherry, in their place.
  • Montmorency – American brewers often reach for Montmorency cherries for brewing. Montmorency cherries are the most widely grown cherry in the United States and offer a great cherry flavor for pies and beer alike.
  • Balaton – Another great American cherry is the Balaton. First grown in Hungary before meeting widespread success in the United States, the Balaton’s crimson color adds a bright vibrance to any recipe it’s used in.

Cherries by preparation

As for preparation, the way you use your cherries will greatly influence your final results.

Here are some common ways to buy your cherries:

  • Fresh, macerated cherries – Fresh cherries are always used for traditional Belgian Kriek. The fresh fruit offers the most aromatic compounds possible, including the woody finish from the cherry pits.
  • Canned cherries – Canned cherries are great for dark beers, but aren’t always the right choice for lighter ones. Canned fruit is often cooked before it’s preserved, releasing setting pectin and providing a cooked flavor that may serve a chocolate porter, but would be unwelcome in a light ale.
  • Frozen cherries – Frozen cherries are a great choice for brewing when fresh fruit isn’t available. However, be aware that frozen cherries are picked young and therefore have a lower sugar content that fresh cherries would. Be sure to account for the additional acid with a little extra sugar.
  • Cherry extract – Extract uses a solvent to like ethanol to pull the essential flavor compounds out of cherries for later use. This option can often miss delicate volatile aromas found in fresh cherries and can be overpowering when overused.
  • Cherry syrup – Cherry syrup is made by macerating cherries in a simply syrup solution and straining out the cherries. This method has an extremely high sugar content and can miss some of the delicate aromatic compounds in cherries.
  • Cherry juice – Exactly what it sounds like; cherry juice is a great option to add cherry flavor to beer, though the high water content will dilute your beer. It’s often better to choose a juice concentrate for a more robust flavor.
  • Cherry juice concentrate – This deep-flavored concentrate is a favorite for porters, because it can stand up to their dark, robust flavors.
  • Cherry puree – Purees work just like fresh macerated cherries, but are often quite high in sugar content.

How much cherry should you add to a homebrew recipe?

Since cherries can add so much sugar to your beer, they often result in “medicinal” off-flavors in beer.

A good rule of thumb for a full-flavored cherry flavor is to add 1 to 2 lbs. of fruit for every gallon of beer. This ratio works well for most cherry-flavored beers.

The traditional recipe for krieks calls for slightly more at about 2 to 2.5 pounds of fresh cherries per gallon. But keep in mind that this weight includes the cherry pits; modern variations on kriek that leave out the pits have a much lower ratio, with Northern Brewer’s Dawson’s Kriek recipe only calling for 6 pounds of cherry puree per 5-gallon batch.

You should consider paring down the amount of cherry added if you choose a juice concentrate to account for the lost water content.

Furthermore, if you choose to use an extract, be sure to use it sparingly: 1 oz. of cherry extract per gallon of beer is sufficient. More than that will leave your beer with a strong, medicinal taste.

How to brew with cherries

There are a few options of when to add cherries to your beer, depending on the style.

When using fresh cherries, you have the option to add the fruit to the mash or add it in a brew bag during the secondary fermentation step. Finally, you could opt to use the cherries to referment aged beer, which is how kriek is traditionally flavored. 

Let’s take a look at the methods of flavoring cherry beer below:

  • Add to the mash (boil)
  • Secondary fermentation
  • Refermentation after aging
  • Extract before bottling

Add to the mash

Adding cherries to the mash is a great way to get a full, fermented cherry flavor in your beer.

Since you add the cherries early, you’ll be sure that all the sugar is completely fermented by the time your beer is ready. In addition, your fruit will be sterilized in the hot mash, saving you a step in the process.

On the other hand, steeping fruit in a hot mash will leave it tasting cooked, and the time spent fermenting will see much of the volatile aromas disappear before bottling. This isn’t a problem for chocolate porters and stout beers that will benefit from the jammy cherry flavors found in a cherry pie but could be a problem for more delicate beers.

Secondary fermentation

For a more aromatic cherry flavor, you can opt to add cherries during the secondary fermentation.

Either by adding fresh cherries, syrup, or concentrate, adding fruit at this step is the most common practice for breweries looking to create a full cherry flavor. 

If you choose to add fresh cherries at this stage, be sure to pasteurize them before adding them to your beer!

Refermentation after aging

The traditional method for flavoring kriek starts with fully fermented lambic, already aged for 12 to 18 months in oak barrels. From there, the cherries are added to the mature beer as a way to add sugar and wake up the dormant wild yeast in the beer. 

This method will prevent the kind of over-fermentation that comes with adding too much sugar at once and produces a great product. Its results are quite similar to simply adding the cherries during secondary fermentation as long as you’re careful about sugar content. 

If you’re willing to trade time for a higher quality beer, give this method a try, but if you’re experimenting with new cherry-based recipes, it might not be necessary.

Extract before bottling

A cherry extract can produce a strong medicinal flavor, so it should be used with caution.

That being said, if you want to add cherry flavor to a beer you’ve already brewed (and aren’t up for aging your beer on cherries as is done with traditional krieks), extracts can be a great option for a quick fix. 

Just add 1 oz. of cherry extract per gallon as you bottle, and your beer should have a refreshing cherry flavor without any syrupy, medicinal notes!