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.
I wanted to try to make something in the neighborhood of a lambic kriek. Below is the process and recipe I followed.
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.)
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.
When I initially added cherries I added 2lbs per gallon, so I added roughly 6lbs. I added them straight out of the can. This did not get me much color or cherry flavor. I then added two cans of the Oregon brand canned tart cherries, which I did crush and boiled briefly to pasteurize them after I exposed them to the open air and stuff in my kitchen while crushing them. This seemed to help get more fermentation going, but still not much. Incidentally, I developed a mold problem. I then added an entire quart-sized jar of pure cherry juice. That seemed to develop a stronger cherry flavor and color. I will add another jar and hopefully after a final round of fermentation it will be as much cherry as I wanted in the beginning.
The issue with canned cherries is that most of the juice is lost, which is where most of the flavor comes from. On the other hand, I suspect using just juice would contribute a less fresh-cherry flavor. Next time I brew this (as a 3 gallon batch) I would use at least two jars for more cherry flavor, and perhaps only 1.5-2lbs. of canned cherries. I would also freeze the cherries (out of the can!!) and mash them up a little before adding them, so whatever flavor is available will get out there.