Before Bell’s was Bell’s, it was the Kalamazoo Brewing Supply Company—a homebrew shop that opened in 1983. It remained a homebrew shop even after Larry Bell, about two years later, began selling the amber ale he brewed on his 15-gallon kit.
That shop is where local homebrewers met, too. There was a club there called the Beer Mussels (a name that Bell blames on too much homebrew). Among that group, Bell says, “there were a bunch of guys who were making cherry stout.”
Most of the country’s tart Montmorency cherries come from western Michigan—and those homebrewers were taking full advantage. “You know, we live in the Fruit Belt here. So, I thought, kind of to honor them and do something different, that we’d make Cherry Stout.”
That was the genesis of the beer that Bell calls the “pinot noir” of his brewery’s range: Bell’s Cherry Stout, the yearly seasonal that appears in October and November.
It debuted commercially in 1988 as Great Lakes Cherry Stout, but first Bell had to get approval from regulators who had yet to see anything like it. “In that it was fruit, I decided I was going to try and put a vintage on it,” Bell says. “So I remember trying to get the paperwork approved by the ATF. And they’re like, ‘Now hold it. You got fruit in it? What? … And you want to put a year on it?’ It took months for them to get their heads wrapped around that—that that was legal. … It took a lot of convincing, but they finally said yes.”
To source the cherries, Bell drove out to a local operation called Fruit Belt Canning. “At that time, their old line had a cloth conveyor belt on it,” he recalls. “Super-sanitary, right? It was old school. … As the cloth conveyor came around, there was a sag point in it—its loosest point. And at that point, it would drip cherry juice. And it dripped a lot of juice. So they would collect it for me. I paid them $1 a gallon for cherry juice, and then pits were free. You could stand there with a five-gallon pail and fill it with pits if you wanted. It was amazing.”
In those days, Bell says, they would add pits to the beer to extract some of that flavor. However, pits are more strictly regulated these days; cherry pits contain a cyanide precursor called amygdalin—not dangerous on a small scale, but controversial enough to avoid commercially. (These days, Bell’s uses no pits, just concentrated cherry juice.)
“For us, this was a very special beer,” Bell says. “You’ve got to realize that at this time, obtaining bottles was still a challenge for us as a small brewery, and I was able to make a purchase of some 375 [ml] champagne bottles.” They hand-foiled the bottles and sold the beer for $15 per six-pack. “It was expensive, expensive beer.”
Bell says he still has two bottles from that inaugural batch in his cellar. “Cherry Stout has great longevity in the cellar; I suspect [it’s] because of the acidity of the fruit,” he says. “It could hold on really long.”
In 2018, the brewery brewed an extra-special Cherry Stout Reserve to mark the original’s 30th anniversary. That one checked in at 9 percent ABV, brewed to an OG of 1.101 (compared to 7 percent and 1.079 for the regular Cherry Stout). The Reserve also spent some time on whole cherries and oak chips. Barrel-aged versions also appear occasionally.
While Bell may not do much homebrewing himself these days, he does still play around with tart cherries. He says he likes to make a drink he calls guignolet—a type of cherry liqueur that borrows its name from an older French product. “I macerate the cherries with a whole bunch of red wine,” he says. “Like maybe three gallons—it’s basically a case of red wine and maybe a bottle and a cup of vodka. … And then my neighbor—I’m looking at it right now—has a cherry tree, and I go and pick the leaves of the cherry tree. … Add a little bit of sugar. You macerate all that together for a month, and then you bottle it. And it’s an aperitif, before dinner.”
Perhaps because of the unconventional marriage of stout and tart fruit, Bell says that Cherry Stout always has been a polarizing beer. “I’ve always said that the first swallow of Cherry Stout is your most awkward, kind of compared to drinking pinot noir. The first sip of a pinot noir is like, ‘Uh, really?’ And then the bottle opens up, and you finish it, and at the end you’re like, ‘Holy shit, I want to have another one of those.’ That’s what happens to me if I start drinking Cherry Stout. Then I just want to drink Cherry Stout—but it is quite fun, too, so you get in trouble.”
Brewing Your Own Cherry Stout
One of the country’s best-known fruit beers, Bell’s Cherry Stout is a study in richness and balance honed over more than three decades.
Its signature ingredient is cherry juice concentrate sourced from Cherry Central, based in Traverse City, Michigan. (There is a commercially available brand from the same source called Tart Is Smart.) John Mallett, Bell’s vice president and head of brewing operations, says that the concentrate goes in at the end of the boil and makes up about 2 percent of the total batch volume—that’s about 13 ounces for a five-gallon batch (or 400 ml for a 20-liter batch).
To balance the acidity of the fruit, Mallett recommends a varied malt profile that goes easy on the roast while leaning more into chocolate flavors. “The thing I’m visualizing is a fruit bonbon,” Mallett says. “So, a chocolate-covered cherry, right? … It’s almost like emulating that full-flavor, great chocolate.”
For more about brewing fruited stouts—including more advice and an original recipe from Mallett—check out the October-November issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, available now.