Brewing With Cherries

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There are a few main considerations to be aware of when you decide you’re going to add cherries to your homebrew. The quantity and type of cherries, their condition, and the brewing stage to add the fruit are all important aspects of preparing a delicious final product.

What Type of Cherries Should I Use?

When deciding what type of cherries to use, remember to keep your final creation in mind. If you prefer the taste of those sugary little red buttons you see on cakes, then buy yourself a big sealed bag of glace cherries. They’re cheap and the whole process of adding a commercial, pre-sanitized food product is much more simple than adding a fresh, harvested fruit. But beware; the fermenting process will remove a lot of the simple sweetness, so you’ll be left with a bitter flavor more like medicine. Having said that, if you enjoy a little sip of cough syrup before bed, buy two big bags of glace cherries. You’ll probably prefer the beer to the medication and I reckon it might help you get to sleep a little easier too.
As for other pre-sanitized food products, many brewers use cherry syrup or juice for a great final beverage. The next section of this article deals with methods and procedures a brewer can use to prepare a solid fruit for brewing, but cherry syrup will allow you to skip all of this. Some kind of pasteurization and pulverization has already been done far, far away in a sanitized environment. If you use a store-bought cherry juice, you can simply tip the liquid into the beer at the perfect moment for a reliable effect. Consider sourcing a high quality, one hundred percent cherry liquid that you can use again and again in future brews. Then you can compare the results from one batch to another and examine the effects the other ingredients of individual brews have on the beer.

How Do I Brew With Real Cherries?

Use 1.2 pounds of real cherries per gallon of wort (that’s 125 grams per liter). That’s a simple and easy benchmark to work from. More cherries should be used in darker beer, something like 1.4 pounds per gallon (150 grams per liter). Fewer cherries should be used in a lighter beer; consider dropping below 15 ounces per gallon (100 grams per liter) if you’re brewing a really fresh session lager. This amount will allow the other flavors of the brew to shine alongside the taste of the fruit. It seems like a lot, it is a lot, but cherries are notorious for the mild character they imbue into beer and nobody wants to wrap their lips around something disappointing. A weak flavored beer would just be a waste of a brew day, especially if you’ve been waiting a month to enjoy the lovely stuff.

Preparing Your Cherries

There are many little tricks and recommendations out there and a few seem to work quite well. If you freeze your cherries before adding them to the brew, you’ll break down the cell walls of the fruit. This allows the flavor to diffuse into the liquid more quickly. Some brewers suggest that the freezing process also kills the microbes that infect or spoil the brew, but there are too many little nasties with too many attributes to be certain that freezing is an effective sanitary process on its own. So boil your cherries as well. This may create pectin so throwing a little pectic enzyme in with your yeast will clear that up.
The best way to boil fruit for beer is to submerge it in hot water while in a sealed bag (all you brewers who moon-light as chefs, think sous-vide). This retains the flavor within the fruit parcel but cooks any impurities or unwanted microscopic residents. Be sure to use a food-grade plastic bag which can be totally sealed and check to see that the manufacturers encourage the heating of their product. If the bag has the word ‘garbage’ or ‘trash’ in the title, you should use something else. Zip-lock bags work very well.
After your fruit has been frozen and boiled, you may choose to remove the pits and/or blend the fruit. This is an additional stage some brewers incorporate, but it’s not essential. To simplify the process, the fruit can be used whole for great success. If you’d like to test whether or not the whole cherries retain their flavor once you remove them from your brew later on, eat a few. You’ll find any lovely little tang that used to make the cherry your favorite fruity snack is long gone. The flavor is all in the beer now.
The cherries after nine days in the secondary fermenter. Delicious.

When Should I Add Them?

Cherries can be diced and added to the mash, which will sanitize the fruit, but this method demands that every fermentation and brewing process takes its toll on the flavor. You’ll probably find that the beer loses a lot of the freshness that real fruit offers and the cherry note may taste baked. Adding the cherries directly to the hot wort is another sanitary option, but the sugars and aroma will still be affected by primary fermentation.
The preferable time to add cherries to your beer is during secondary fermentation. At this stage, you can rack your beer onto a permeable brewing bag full of sanitized fruit and allow the flavor to impregnate the brew after all the initial brewing stages have been completed. A good suggestion is to get a few smaller secondary fermenters going. Why not split the brew into a couple of batches and add vanilla to one? A week is generally enough time to withdraw the majority of flavor from the frozen then cooked cherries in the secondary, but leave it longer if you’re concerned for the clarity of the beer.
Real cherries (frozen and boiled) on the left and glace cherries thoroughly sprayed with sanitizer on the right, ready to be added to two separate 1.5 liter porter secondary fermenters. The real cherry porter was great, a decent kick of the fruit flavor lingering at the back of the mouth after the beer dissipated. This would go great with a steak or smoked cheddar (or absolutely anything else). The glace cherry porter had a serious sour/bitter finish. A sour/bitter finish isn’t always the worse thing, but be careful who you share it with… a Sauvignon Blanc drinker is likely to vomit on your brewery (or bedroom) floor.
Lead Image by Liz West
This article came at the perfect time. Brewing a rye porter that I will secondary on cherries this weekend. Thank you!
I've found that boiling fruit really diminishes the fresh fruit flavor. Spraying fruit with a light mist of starsan, then freezing, and adding to the beer once fermentation is about 1/2 to 2/3 complete has worked well for me. The decreased pH and increased alcohol content of a partially-complete fermentation helps prevent infections from the fruit. A small amount of Starsan doesn't affect the beer at all. This even works well with "clean" beers that only have beer yeast and not lacto or Brettanomyces.
living in MI, we have access to awesome cherries in the summer. i have used cherry juice and fresh AND frozen cherries, all with great success!
juice--typically add as primary fermentation is winding down. gives it a little extra gravity boost while still preserving the flavor. have also added when racking to secondary to preserve the flavor/aroma/etc and when kegging. it is interesting to see how the juice impacts the various stages of fermentation and at kegging. (have always used trader joe's 100% cherry juice).
fresh cherries--de-stem, wash (starsan) & rinse, weighed and portioned out in ziplock bags and froze to pierce the skins and add the best fresh flavor/aroma/color.
frozen cherries--purchased from the local grocery store (Kroger private selection) and added right out of the bag when racking to secondary.
these methods have worked really well for me and everyone who tried the beers thoroughly enjoyed them!
Hi there, we want to brew a Raspberry beer but using a concentrate. How much concentrate do we use on a 500 liter brew? Battling to find answers. Thank you
That sounds like a great technique, I'll try that next time I brew with a milder fruit flavour. It would probably be perfect for something like a session strawberry lager.
Hmmm, I haven't used a raspberry concentrate specifically before, sorry. I find it can be handy to do a trial brew with a smaller secondary (or primary). You could experiment with a half gallon of whatever you're brewing next before committing to a full batch.
Winemakers already know about fresh fruit additions without boiling. You add some kmbs to your fruit pulp at about 50ppm and let it sit for a day. That will kill wild yeasts. Also adding lysozyme will knock out bacterial fermentation. When you add it to your wort the kmbs will get diluted down and fermentation will procede without problem.
Don't add lysozyme if you are hoping to get some type of bacterial fermentation later on - say pedio or lactose.
Note of warning: do not add cherries to a keg.
I had a steam ale, that I fermented with WLP645 (brett C) and after half a year, I added cherries to the keg.
Naturally, fermentation started back up as one would assume. While lifting the pressure relief valve once in a while to let out some of the CO2 seemed to work during the primary fermentation, adding cherries led to some dangerous complications.
As you would’ve guessed, the pressure relief valve got clogged with bits of cherry skins. Because letting out the CO2 caused nucleation sites, an added volume of the beer (foam) pushed the skins up, causing them to be lodged in the pressure relief valve. I slid the keg into my shower where I unscrewed the pressure relief valve. The pressure on the keg was so great, that it shot out half of the contents of the keg (it was a full corny) and covered me and every wall of the shower in kriek-ish beer. It must’ve spewed beer for 20 seconds straight.
Although the situation may seem funny, it could’ve gone a lot worse. While I’m sad that I lost a lot of (potentially awesome) beer, I’m immensely relieved that the pressure and the clogged valve did not cause the keg to explode, possibly causing major harm.
Moral of the story: when adding cherries, make sure you DO NOT add it to a closed, pressurised container. ESPECIALLY not a corny keg.
Love a good cherry wheat beer. Thanks to article, I know what I'm doing next and how I'm going to do it! Just have to say in the past, I have supplemented a real fruit secondary with a touch of flavor extract at bottling (watermelon, apricot, lime) with good results. Have you ever done this with cherry?
I haven't done this specifically, but your best bet might be to ask the staff at your location local brew store. They'll probably have a brand (or simply a type of extract) that they know works well. They should also have some information on quantity.
I also rinse fresh cherries in a Starsan solution before freezing. I'm not a fan of cherry flavored(or any fruit) "normal" beers, but I do use them in brett fermented beers. That's where the fruit really shines.
Given the wide variety of cherries out there, has anyone noticed a particular strain that does better than others?
Does the beer make a difference? I.E., a Bing cherry for a wheat beer versus a golden sweet cherry for a stout?
My grandmother loves, loves, loves cherry cordials, so I've been kicking around an idea for a cherry chocolate milk stout, and I want to make sure the cherries are the star of the show.
Thanks so much for this post. I have always wanted to experiment brewing with different items. I think cherries would bring such a unique flavor! I will definitely be trying glace cherries.
Brewed an Irish Stout for Oktoberfest function and want to give it a Bing cherry finish.
Was given a very short time frame to turn this beer. Finished two week primary, and moved
to carboy. Bought 5 lb. frozen cherries. Have a good juicer. Should I thaw and juice them, or
add the whole cherries to the carboy? Only have one week to develop flavor.
Should I leave at room temp @73* or lager at 40* to limit further fermentation?
Do-able?? or dreamer?
I'd thaw and juice so you have less sediment to worry about dropping out. It's a stout so sediment doesn't matter too much, but I'd rather not have to worry about it affecting mouthfeel.