Pretty much everybody loves krieks, except for the anti-fruit-in-beer folks. This is especially true of significant others that maybe just don’t like beer, but do enjoy the fruity taste of a kriek, or some other fruit-flavored beer. I believe for most of us, at least those of us in the US, our first stab at a kriek is the Lindeman’s stuff. I find that most homebrewers take that first step into the world of brewing lambics, realize lambics require years of aging, and inquire about how to speed up the process. The next step involves trying to sort out how Lindeman’s makes their product, only to learn that their fruit lambics are backsweetened and not at all representative of the “real” lambic krieks on the market.
One can use cherries in many kinds of beers; and not all krieks are lambics. There are cherry wheat beers, cherry stouts, cherry brown ales, cherry porter, etc. Krieks, as a specific subset of cherry beers, are more accurately limited to cherry beers made with a sour base beer. To that extent, krieks are commonly made with lambic, gueuze (blended lambic) and oud bruins. I have never heard of a true Flanders red used to make a kriek, but they are probably out there.
A great cherry beer can be made without being a lambic. You can get reasonably close by using a solid 60% barley/40% wheat beer with low hops. Similarly, you could capture something similar to a sour brown/oud bruin based-kriek by making a malty brown ale (again with low hops). Just add cherries. Unfortunately, without any souring process, you will have a difficult time getting the complexity and refreshing tartness of a real kriek.
Perhaps, like me, you are still committed to the fantasy of a delicious, ruby red kriek without committing the years it takes to make them. I can appreciate that half-commitment. The good news is that I am working on such a project! It will be updated as I go.
A true lambic would include 60% malted barley and 40% unmalted wheat. Simple two row or pilsner can work for the malted barley. Lambics also take advantage of aged hops (read, old ass hops left laying around) to obtain some of the antibacterial benefits without too much bittering. They use complex mash schedules (known as a “turbid mash”) and spontaneously ferment. Unless you live in Brussels, you’re not going to spontaneously ferment with the same bugs – or flavor – that they get in Brussels. Since I didn’t want to use unmalted wheat, didn’t have aged hops, didn’t want to follow the exhaustive turbid mash schedule, and wouldn’t spontaneously ferment, I had a lot of changes to make.
(If you want to alter any of my steps by being more authentic, you can buy unmalted wheat at most health food stores, many homebrew shops sell aged hops, Wyeast published a turbid mash schedule on their website, and you can buy many different sour/lambic blends from yeast suppliers to get the same/similar blend of bugs that appear in Belgium.)
The key to the flavor of a lambic is the naturally created lactic acid and the complex flavors of brett, so I needed to figure out a way to mimic those characteristics as much as possible. The brett flavors are out. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a way to get really solid brett flavor any other way than actually letting brett sit for months or years. However, brett and tart cherries do have some similar flavors, so by letting brett go I can keep some of the flavors through the cherries. The sourness is a must, but there is another option available. By sour mashing some of the grain, I could introduce sourness quickly and naturally, without the time delay. So actually a very simple recipe was created:
Batch size: 3 gallons
ABV: 6.51% (pre-cherries)
4 lb Pilsner
2.75 lb malted wheat
Boil volume: 3.43 gallons
90 minutes – 1.25 oz aged Fuggles
Yeast: WLP 575 Belgian blend
Regular mash schedule: basic triple decoction. (A step mash or single infusion could also be used instead.)
I executed a sour mash on half a gallon and a pound of pilsner. (See my explanation of the sour mash process for step-by-step instructions.) I let it sit for three days before completing the regular mash and boiling. When doing a partial sour mash, it is important to remember to adjust your mash and sparge water needs because you’ll be adding the wort from the sour mash back into the kettle to reach your full boil volume.
Fermentation & Adding Cherries
I let this beer ferment out for two weeks before adding cherries. When I was developing this recipe, I admittedly did lean on several other people who have done basically the same thing (so I admit, this was not a novel idea when I developed my process.) The problem I ran into time and time again is that they either had access to fresh cherries, frozen cherries, or expensive canned cherries/puree. Although you can make cherry beer using sweet cherries, krieks are traditionally made with sour cherries, like what you would use in a cherry pie. I live in Texas, which is not cherry country. Cherries are not plentiful, even in health stores or farmer’s markets. The most commonly available products were canned cherries, canned cherry pie filling, or fresh sweet cherries. I did find some cherry puree available at local homebrew shops and health stores, but by the time I bought enough for my small three gallon batch, it would have been over $30 for the cherries, making it a very expensive batch of beer. I looked online, but even the cheapest sources would have been roughly the same when shipping was factored in.
When setting out to buy sour cherries for making kriek (or any other cherry beer) fresh will always be best. Many people swear by that Oregon cherry puree. Many commercial breweries use it, so it’s considered quality stuff. Frozen cherries are similarly thought to be a solid option as well. Cherry juice is often discouraged because it is commonly a blend of cherry juice with apple or grape juice. It may also have sugar added (risking cider-y flavor) and/or have preservatives that will put your yeast to sleep. Canned cherries are a viable option, so this is where I went.
You can buy canned cherries at any grocery store. Be careful though, there are two different kinds you can buy. In the baking goods aisle, you will find cherry pie filling. This filling tends to be cherries floating around in a sugar-oil-water mix. The problem is that you don’t really want the extra sugar giving a cider taste and oil will make your beer slick and lose head. Cherry pie filling often also has artificial flavors and preservatives that will stop fermentation. If you look in the canned fruit area, usually near canned vegetables, you should find canned sour/tart cherries in water. Check the label, it should just be pitted cherries and water. You can even buy the store brand, which makes it very, very cheap.
The rule of thumb with cherries is 2lbs. per gallon of beer. You may want to go more or less depending on how much cherry you want. I’m not sure how to gauge using cherry juice, but any other option should be strictly 2lbs/gallon.
Although I didn’t do this on this attempt, in the future I would crush the cherries a bit and then freeze them with the water from the can to help break down the cell walls so the yeast can get at the sugars easier. You can dump the cherries in straight from the can, since they are pasteurized. That’s what I did. I dumped six pounds of cherries, along with the water, into the beer. The water has absorbed some of the sugar flavor, so it makes sense to let that go into the beer. Don’t worry, there’s not that much water and you will lose some liquid to the cherries when you rack off of them.
The yeasts will quickly go to work on the yeasts. You should see a new krausen form over the cherries and into the holes from where they de-pitted the cherries. I expect to let the cherries sit for at least three months before racking. As of the time of this writing the cherries have been in the fermenter for roughly five weeks. The cherries are still full of yeasts. I gave the kriek a taste this week, and it is slightly pink, slightly cherry flavored, but very balanced between the tartness of the cherry and the sourness from the sour mash.
This week has also seen the rise of the unknown white plate infection. It is definitely spreading and taking over quickly. I am unsure what this is. Some people say it is lactobacillus. Some people say it is mold. Although the mold definitely grosses me out, I would rather it be mold, because it won’t affect the flavor and I can simply rack out from under it. If it is lacto, that is a problem because it will continue souring the beer and I will be forced to either accept more souring than I wanted to keep the beer on the cherries or stop the additional cherry flavoring to try bottle and quickly consume the beer. It is neither fuzzy like mold nor anything like what I have seen from lacto while sour mashing, so I am unsure. Other people say it may simply be beer stone, which would be harmless.
I also suspect it may be a brett fermentation starting up. Of all things to “infect” the beer, brett would be the least problematic. Although it would mean allowing the beer to ferment for several months longer than I wanted, I would get the beneficial addition of brett flavors to my kriek.
At this point, I have two concerns. First, is the obvious unknown player in the beer. I will continue to monitor and taste the beer for any additional souring or off flavors. Second, the beer is not as red or cherry-ish as I would like. This will also require patient waiting to see how they improve. If after a couple of months the cherry is not more prominent, I will likely add more cherries or mix in a can or two of puree.
I’m still trying to get more cherry flavor in the beer. I added two more cans of cherries, good for another 1.5 lbs. This time I crushed them up a bit and gave it a slight boil just to sanitize and then I’ll let it sit for a few weeks and assess it. This time I used those Oregon packed tart cherries. Maybe my memory is off, but they don’t seem tremendously different than the store brand ones, just twice as expensive.
I added a bottle of cherry juice, which seemed to have the effect of rousing the yeasts and getting them fermenting and producing CO2 which seems to have knocked out most of the mystery guest in the kriek. The juice really seems to help get a stronger cherry flavor.