Fermented juniper berry juice (smreka or kleka) is the most popular recipe on our website. Bittersweet and tangy, this refreshing, lemonade-like beverage is incredible! We guarantee people will be begging you for one more glass (and you'll pretend you didn't hear them)!
In the Balkans, the juniper tree is synonymous with the juice made from its berries. Here, it goes by the name of smreka (Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia), kleka (Croatia, Serbia), brin, brina (Slovenia), and more.
(Note that in some Balkan regions kleka is also the name used for rakija, or homemade brandy, made from juniper berries.)
If you read "fermented juniper juice" and thought sauerkraut or kimchi, you're far off! Think of smreka as a bittersweet lemonade. You can consume it as is, sweeten with honey or sugar, and even mix it with fresh or soda water.
But, let's talk about this amazing plant first!
Juniper (juniperus communis), known as the common juniper, is an evergreen plant from the cypress family. It consists of bushes and small trees standing at about 3-6 feet, with rare ones as tall as 50 feet.
Think of juniper tree berries as bluer and harder blueberries. The berry fruit is about 1-inch in diameter. It starts off as a green, meaty berry that eventually matures into midnight blue. This takes 2-3 years.
This is what they look like:
Bittersweet juniper berries, and juniper tree needles, are used for:
- drinks (teas, gin, rakija, and juice),
- esoteric oils,
- food extracts and seasonings (kielbasa and game),
- and even medicine.
As we've had 100s of questions about fermented juniper berry juice, juniper berries, and juniper trees over the years, today we'll share all our knowledge. We've made smreka again and again, read everything we could find, and even called up smreka sellers to ask for their secrets.
It turned out, we were doing it great from the start! By following these instructions you should make this juniper berry drink easily from the first try. It's easy, we promise!
However, read through the entire article!
Unlike fermented cabbage, juniper berry juice, smreka, needs just a little more attention. (Comment section below the recipe also might be helpful to you.)
For simplicity, much of the information is in the FAQs section.
Here are the ingredients necessary to make juniper berry juice smreka.
- Juniper berries: And... You can use the same batch more than once.
Although you can get away with using just juniper berries and water for fermenting, a sour element helps the process a lot. You can use one of the following:
- Lemons: Fresh lemons cut into rounds or quartered. (Use a fresh batch of lemons each time you use and reuse juniper berries.) Lemons go bad quicker (they have a tendency to get moldy sooner rather than later), so most people nowadays prefer the other options to speed up the fermentation. OR
- Fresh lemon juice: Juice from 2 lemons also works; OR
- Sour salt (aka lemon salt or citric acid): Can also be used to speed up the fermentation process. You'll need a couple of teaspoons.
Optional, but tasty additions:
- Blackthorn: A handful of blackthorn is sometimes used to give the juice a reddish hue.
- Apples: Some people put sliced sour apples in their juniper berry juice (Granny Smiths, for example). This gives it a slight wine aroma.
- Rosehip: For a wonderful smell.
- Cornelian Cherries.
Here are instructions for juniper berry juice (smreka). For more detailed instructions look at the recipe card.
Step 1. Add juniper berries and sliced lemons (or lemon salt or juice), and any other ingredients to a clean jar. Close it tightly.
Step 2. (Not pictured) Place the jar in a fermentation spot (look at expert tips!). Every couple of days open the jar and stir the ingredients. It's done when the juice is tangy and of a minty-yellow hue (reddish if you add sloe).
Step 3. (Not pictured) Strain the juniper berry juice (smreka) into a glass bottle(s). Cap the bottles and transfer them to the fridge for up to 2 weeks. When serving dilute if needed. Reuse berries up to 3 times.
Serving: Serve juniper berry juice (smreka) cold or chilled. If you find it strong, dilute it with fresh or mineral water. Per your preference sweeten with honey or sugar.
Storing: Store smreka in glass bottles with a cork or lid, in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Juniper berries are harvested in the fall. As per Balkan tradition, it's best to harvest juniper berries right after the first or second frost. They fall off easily at this point.
To harvest them, place an umbrella or a sheet underneath the tree and gently shake it. Ripe juniper berries will fall off on their own. To protect yourself from needles and allergies, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves.
(Leave about 20% of the berries on the tree so that it can regenerate itself.)
Some harvest juniper with more force using sticks or vigorous shaking. This method requires more time as you'll have to separate ripe berries from unripe ones and the juniper needles.
While we prefer the gentler method, adjust it to your needs. If you have a whole forest of juniper berries to harvest, obviously the rougher method might be of more use to you.
After harvesting, let the berries rest outside on the sheet for an hour. This ensures that any insects that happen to be there leave, and you don't bring them into your home.
The best way is naturally.
The easiest way is to spread the berries out on a large sheet in a drafty and dry place, away from kids and animals. (Avoid sunny or overly warm spots.) This can be a basement with a window, garage, or guest room. The room temperature is usually fine.
Leave it there for a day, and then pack in a bag made with natural products (paper bag, gunny sack, etc.). Juniper berries will continue drying when packed, so you can use them all year long.
Although we haven't tried it, some report using dehydrators to dry juniper berries. We don't find this necessary for juniper berry juice (smreka).
Yes. Check them out here, here, and here.
Note that while we're an Amazon affiliate, we did not buy directly from these stores and cannot vouch for the quality of their berries.
Obviously, if you live in a juniper tree rich state you can harvest your own, or look for them at your local farmer's market.
If you're collecting juniper berries for your own use, keep them in natural materials, like a paper bag, a wooden box with a lid, a gunny sack, or a cardboard box.
Please consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before using juniper berries and juniper needles for health benefits! We're not certified to dispense medical advice.
Keeping that in mind, here are some alleged health benefits from the juniper berries according to Balkan sources.
Juniper berry juice is a great diuretic. It's recommended for patients with kidney stones and diabetes. It's also supposed to help with GI tract issues and migraines. It helps with inflammation too, and its oils are used for massaging individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
Avoid consuming if you're pregnant or nursing.
Don't panic! You're probably seeing kahm yeast which looks like a layer of white scrum. It's not dangerous!
Simply remove it with a spoon and seal the lid again. (If you're really worried and think it's necessary, strain the juice, wash the berries, and combine them again in your jar. Then continue the fermentation process until the juice is done.) You can read more about kahm yeast here.
If you're worried that what you're seeing is mold, here is a great article on what to do.
We found the magic number to be two for juniper berry juice (smreka). You may get away with it three times.
- Find a relatively warm spot. Terraces and balconies work well. As do tops of cabinets or warm spots in the kitchen or home. The only requirement is that the spot is relatively warm. (Smreka doesn't have to be exposed to sunlight.)
- If you live in a very humid environment it'll be done quicker.
- For example, I live in a continental climate with warm summers and snowy winters. I make smreka juice on my window sill facing south. As the window is right above the radiator, it takes about the same time to make it year-round. The average temperature in this spot is 24-26°C (75-78°F).
- As with most fermentations, there is no rule cut in stone. Sometimes juniper berry juice (smreka) will ferment for 7 days, and sometimes way beyond 15 days. This greatly depends on the fermentation spot (look above), and the climate you live in. Our sweet spot is between 10 days and 2 weeks.
- (Reading the comment section may be helpful here, as people have different experiences.)
- A good way to find out if your juice is ready to simply try it. (A good time to do this is when you're stirring the juice.) If it's minty-yellow and tastes tangy, sour, and slightly carbonated, it's ready. (If you add something like blackthorn berries, your juice will be reddish.)
Fermenting the same berries again:
-You'll get the best juice the first and second time using the same batch. You may get away with it the third time, but the juice won't be as strong or flavorful. When you reuse the berries you'll notice them falling to the jar's bottom quicker.
Movement of juniper berries:
You'll notice berries "walking" up and down the jar. That's perfectly normal.
Here are a few Balkan beverages just as tasty as juniper berry juice (smreka) that you'll enjoy:
- Homemade mint tea - why buy it, if you can make your own?
- Elderberry Cordial - fancy a picnic in a cup, m'dear?
- Care for a heavenly liqueur? Višnja, or sour cherry liquid will awaken the senses!
If you make fermented juniper berry juice (smreka or kleka) and like it, please consider giving it a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (5-star) rating. This helps others find the recipe more easily!
Also, feel free to leave a comment (I read each one!), and don't forget to tag a photo #balkanlunchbox, or us @balkanlunchbox, on IG.
Prijatno and bon appetit!
Fermented Juniper Berry Juice (Smreka, Kleka)
- 1 glass jar with lid volume of 1-gallon volume (or a 3 liter jar if using metric volumes)
- 2-3 lemons OR juice of 2-3 lemons, OR 3 tsps sour salt (citric acid or lemon salt)
- 12-14 ounces juniper berries just harvested or dry berries both work
- filtered or boiled water enough to fill the jar with berries
- (Optional) a handful or two of blackthorn berries (sloe) used to give a reddish hue
- In a clean glass jar add juniper berries and sliced lemons (or lemon salt or juice). If adding sloe add it now also. Fill the jar to the top with filtered or boiled water. Stir very lightly, and tightly close the lid.
- Place the jar in your fermentation spot (look below). Leave for 10-15 days. Every couple of days open the jar and stir the contents. You can taste it at this point too, and see if it's to your liking.
- During the fermentation process, some juniper berries will sink to the bottom, or even travel up and down in the jar. As the days go by the liquid will eventually take on a minty-yellow hue. (If you put in blackthorn berries/ sloe, this hue will be reddish.) Try the juice and if it's tangy and on the sour side, it is done.
- Strain the juice into a glass bottle(s). (Keep the berries, and set them aside.) Cork or cap the bottles and transfer them to the fridge. Keep the juice in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
- When getting ready to consume the juice, taste to decide if the sourness level is to your liking. The drink is healthiest as is, but if you find it too strong, you can dilute with water. Alternatively use mineral water, but this will add a little more carbonation to the juice. If you prefer it sweeter, you can add a teaspoon of sugar, or honey.
Making a second or third batch with the same juniper berries
- Take the berries you set aside after straining the juice. (Discard any remaining lemon pieces.) Wash the berries and clean the jar. Return the berries to the jar, and add new lemon pieces (or lemon salt or juice), and filtered water. Stir and screw the lid on again, and repeat the fermentation process.
- The second and third time around the berries will fall to the bottom more quickly. When most of them stay on the bottom, and the juice is no longer flavorful, berries are ready to be discarded. This is usually after the second time using the same batch, although sometimes you can get away with using the same batch of berries three times.