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Dark Yet Bright: The Balancing Act of Brewing Fruited Stout

Here, two brewmasters who know their way around a dark grist—T.L. Adkisson of Foothills in North Carolina, and John Mallett of Bell’s in Michigan—share advice on balancing juicy fruit with a rich, roasty profile.

Joe Stange Dec 24, 2021 - 6 min read

Dark Yet Bright: The Balancing Act of Brewing Fruited Stout Primary Image

Think fresh coffee with fresh fruit for breakfast, or a chocolate-covered cherry, strawberry, or orange slice—flavors that contrast yet work together beautifully.

Maybe it’s easier to imagine than to brew. Straight-up fruit stouts are relatively scarce these days compared to those that lean into more dessert-like adjuncts, such as vanilla, chocolate, and coconut. Yet the enduring popularity of big, flavored stouts means that brewers are still tinkering with all kinds of variations—including fruit.

Dead and Berried

One of the best fruit stouts we’ve tasted lately is a blackberry imperial stout—Dead and Berried, from Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (and reviewed by our blind panel for this issue, see page 90). This is a big, characterful beer of 10.5 percent ABV and 62 IBUs, aged in bourbon barrels for about six months after getting a load of blackberry puree.

T.L. Adkisson, brewmaster at Foothills, says he’s always enjoyed brewing fruited dark beers—from raspberry brown ales to black-cherry stouts and fruited smoked porters. “To me, the sheer number of flavors you can get from more complex malt bills was just a natural for adding fruit,” he says.

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Dead and Berried gets 420 pounds of Oregon Fruit blackberry puree per 30-barrel batch (that’s about 2.3 pounds per 5-gallon batch, or 1.1 kilo per 20 liters). “We typically [add] it right when primary fermentation starts winding down,” he says. “We get a secondary fermentation that gives us the flavor we’re looking for from the blackberry.”

Adkisson’s advice on balancing the fruit with the stout is to think it through: “Start with the flavor you want, think about the components to get you where you want to go, and work backward from there.” Adding fruit (or any other flavors) means making intentional adjustments to the grist, mash temperature, hops, fermentation temperature, or other factors, to complement the fruit flavors. “For a fruited stout, keep in mind things like how roasty you want it versus the characteristics of your chosen fruit,” he says.

“If you want a really roasty stout and are adding something sweet, like strawberries, you’re going to want to account for that in the grist. Conversely, if you’re going to use a tart fruit, you may want to consider more caramel malt than you normally use or raise the mash temperature to add some sweetness.”

Also, he says, there’s no need to go overboard on the fruit. “Keep in mind that fruit is a complementary addition to dark beers and not there to be the main flavor of the beer, like it is in some lighter styles,” he says. “It would take ungodly amounts of fruit to do that to a stout anyway.”

Cherry Stout

Appearing on shelves in October and November, Bell’s Cherry Stout—which debuted in 1988—is one the country’s best-known fruit beers and a sign that winter approaches. At 7 percent ABV and fermented with a healthy splash of Montmorency cherry juice, the stout is a study in richness and balance honed over more than three decades.

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“That beer comes into its own when you are pairing it with something like Époisses cheese, right? Like, this full-featured cheese,” says John Mallett, VP of operations at Bell’s in Comstock, Michigan. “To me, this is what we should be drinking at the museum opening. This is what should be there because it is this complex, just resonating and resilient beverage. When you think about really complex, deep red wines—there’s a lot of similarity there.”

To brew it, Bell’s gets cherry juice concentrate from Cherry Central in Traverse City, Michigan. Using concentrate has advantages—namely, less water content. Also, the fruit character—in the form of sugars, esters, and acidity—is more intense. Mallett says the concentrate makes up about 2 percent of the total batch volume for Cherry Stout, added at the end of the boil.

Adding the juice before fermentation is safer; it avoids too much residual sugar in the packaged product. It also produces a profile that better showcases the cherry. “If you ferment it, it becomes dry,” Mallett says. “And the predominant flavor characteristic with rich, sour cherry is the sour part of it.” But watch that acidity: Dark roasted malts also will lower the pH.

The sweetness to balance that acidity then comes mainly from the malt selection. “The thing I’m visualizing is a fruit bonbon,” Mallett says. “So, a chocolate-covered cherry, right? If I could manifest that in some way in the glass. And it doesn’t need to be overly sweet. I mean, if you eat some really good dark chocolate and fruit together, it’s not sweet. It’s huge, the flavor.”

That means building a varied malt profile, he says. Go relatively easy on the roast—you don’t want Guinness here, he says—but build up the chocolate flavors and add layers of caramel and Munich. “It’s almost like emulating that full-flavor, great chocolate,” he says.

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