Adding Cherries to Beer – From Sweet Surprise to Cough Syrup

Adding Cherries to Beer – From Sweet Surprise to Cough Syrup

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Walter and I stopped in at Hog Molly Brewing this past weekend for their first bottle release. They had several hundred bottles of a BBA tart cherry porter called Broken Play that went on sale at noon, and they went fast. As of Monday, they had all gone to loving homes.

The barrels were from Bear Wallow Distillery down Highway 46 in Gnawbone, and the base beer was aged in one of the four barrels and not blended. Therefore, bottles from the different barrels were marked (barrels 1 through 4), and will all be a bit different. The bourbon is a great addition, and the porter is solid, but it’s the cherry that I’d like to talk about. It’s easy to screw up a beer with too much cherry, while it’s just as easy to use too little and miss the flavor.

Perhaps it is because so many cough syrups and medicines use cherry flavoring, but cherry beers often get the moniker as tasting “medicinal.” You’ve had them before, and even if you can’t name the exact taste, you know it when you drink it. It is noted that because cherries have a lot of sugar, the fermenting process can remove that sweetness and the remaining compounds could be responsible for the medicinal flavor. On the other hand, cherry extracts and syrups can add a slick, sugary feeling to the beer because there is much more sugar than could be fermented. They can, if used improperly, ruin the mouthfeel and making a beer taste more like a dessert topping.

image credit: Hog Molly Brewing

To get a cherry flavor that works for a particular beer, it’s important to choose both the right type of cherry and the correct form of that flavor. Lou and Martha at Hog Molly sat down with several products to get just the right choice for their cherry porter. Lou told me, “We had a small amount of the base porter set aside for tasting and wanted to find a suitable cherry flavoring. After an extensive search we ordered many samples of extracts, purees, juices, and juice concentrates and arranged a sensory testing session utilizing family and friends as guinea pigs. The tasting was conducted with carefully measured amounts of beer and flavoring. The overwhelming favorite was the Montmorency cherry juice concentrate.  It provided an authentic cherry flavor that was strong enough to stand up to the porter.”

Extracts are made by using a solvent that pulls out different compounds from the fruit or spice. Ethanol is used often as the solvent, and there may be some sugar added as well. Syrups, on the other hand, are simple sugar solutions into which juice or flesh is added and then strained. Syrups are generally thicker and sweeter, while extracts are good for bringing out more volatile compounds, like the hundreds of chemicals in vanilla. Nevertheless, extracts and syrups do miss a lot of the delicate notes that can be found in juice, puree, or whole fruit.

On the other hand, extracts and syrups are cheaper than using puree, fresh juice or concentrated juice, or whole fruit, so many beers end up with syrup or extract in their ingredient list. These are strong ingredients, and often result in that medicinal flavor we mentioned above. They don’t have to though, a subtle touch and the right recipe can still result in a good product.

The Montmorency cherry. image credit: Wikipedia

There are a couple of additional factors as well when considering the use of macerated cherries or puree in your beer. Like so many have found out recently, huge amounts of fruit also mean huge amounts of fermentable sugar added to a beer, and secondary fermentation becomes a distinct possibility. And a brewer doesn’t what that kind of problem blowing up in their faces. In total, cost, flavor, form, amount, body, when to add in primary fermentation, and base beer have to be considered when making a decision on any fruit for beer, but it seems that these factors affect cherry beers more than others.

The point we haven’t addressed yet is just what type of cherry a brewer might want to use to flavor their beer. There are over 1200 varieties of cherries around the world, with the US producing more than any other country except Turkey. Cherries come in two main botanical groups, sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and tart/sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). Without being dogmatic about it, sweet cherries are often used for eating alone or using fresh, while tart cherries are best for cooking with (pies, jams, juice, ..and beer).

Bing cherries are the most popular of the sweet cherries, with Rainier and several others falling in behind them. Washington, Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest grow a lot of sweet cherries, while Michigan is the home for almost all the tart cherries grown in the US, as well as a good amount of sweet cherries. Of the tart varieties, Montmorency and Balaton are by far my favorites for beer.

Looking through our beer history on Untappd, Montmorency cherries have been used in more of the cherry beers that Walter and I have had in the past. The flavor of the Montmorency is so full and complex, it’s hard to beat them, but I like the Balaton just as much or even more. They are firmer, darker, and a bit bolder, so they stand up to the flavors of beer even better in my opinion.

Balaton cherries. Image credit: Bardenhagen Farms

Unfortunately for me, Balaton cherries are rarer and more expensive than Montmorency. I talked to Dr. Amy Iezzoni of Michigan State University about the Balaton Cherry. She’s definitely the person to talk to about Balatons – she introduced them to the US from Hungary in the 1980s. Dr. Iezzoni told me, “Balaton production is a tiny fraction of the production although I don’t have an exact figure. In general Balaton per acre yields are less than Montmorency so unless the price for Balaton is higher than the price for Montmorency the growers will quit growing it. Because of this some wineries in Michigan pay a premium for Balaton cherries compared to Montmorency.”

The reasons that yields for Balaton are lower are related to their short season and their sensitivity to winter damage. In these aspects Balatons are more like sweet cherries, and have less area that is adequate for their growth. However, there is still a huge demand for them because that are a darker color than the Montmorency and have darker juice, making them great for adding color to a recipe, and because their flesh is firmer, so they stand up to cooking better and have less damage in shipping. Balatons can be shipped fresh, while Montmorency cherries are usually frozen or processed for shipping.

The Balaton is slightly sweeter than the Montmorency, and this might be one of the reasons I like them a bit better in beer, but deep down, I think it is probably the fact that they are harder to come by, so I really think that I managed to find a treasure when I locate a beer that uses Balaton cherries. Upland, Side Project, Schramm’s, Jester King, Casey Brewing & Blending, Southern Grist…. they have all used Balaton cherries in beers that we have loved.

Even maraschino cherries (basically sugared and colored preserved cherries) have been used in beer….. and it was good. image credit: natureflavors

As far as the Montmorency cherry in beers, there are more examples of them, but each is a great find. One of the best is the Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin. This brings up the point that while most Montmorency cherries are grown in the Traverse City area of Michigan, a good number are grown in Wisconsin as well. Basically, whether it’s Montmorency or Balaton – you can’t really go wrong.

Now you know a bit more about the beer you’re drinking. If you have something with cherries that you really like, as your brewer what kind of cherries were used, when they were added to the brew, whether they used syrup, extract, whole fruit, juice or concentrate, or puree. That way, the next time you have the choice of a cherry beer, you’ll know more about what you really think does well. But it works the other way too. When you have a cherry beer that misses (in your opinion), find out what they used and when, and then put that in your data bank for use in the reference. In summary, find what you like and seek out more beers like it.

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