Originally published November 2017; updated November 2019
Every year since 2002, when it literally exploded out of their fermenters, Troegs Brewing has made a bigger and bigger batch of Mad Elf. A Belgian strong dark ale brewed with huge amounts of cherries, the Christmastime beer’s ever-growing popularity makes it hard for the Hershey, Pa., brewery to keep up with demand.
It’s also hard to imagine how Troegs brewers could build on the recipe to make it any better, but in 2017, they did. The result — brewed annually every year since — is called Mad Elf Grand Cru.
Brewery cofounders and brothers John and Chris Trogner refer to the alternate edition of their star product as a “director’s cut,” and the comparison is apt. It might not have as wide an audience as the original — which is relatively sugary and fruity, and therefore appeals to many who don’t often drink beer — but its taste is more nuanced. It’s less “smack you over the head with heavy sweetness” and more “essence of cherry, intensified.”
Grand Cru is brewed with all the cherries of its namesake, plus one more: Balatons. It’s the addition of those Balaton cherries (aka sour cherries) that make the major difference in flavor.
The beer pours a deep ruby color, a few shades darker than regular Mad Elf’s rose-fuchsia tint, and has a bright, bouncy head that lingers for several minutes.
There’s very little scent, just a light sourness, but if you breathe extremely deep you catch a whiff of something dark and floral and plum-like hiding below the tartness.
When you take a sip, it’s the slight sour that hits first. But it lasts only an instant, giving way to a smooth, thick liquid with a very light effervescence. It’s almost an odd feeling to be drinking something so syrupy in texture without attendant sweetness. Grand Cru is bottle conditioned, meaning yeast has a chance to eat up extra sugars after the beer is packaged and shipped.
The thick-but-not-sweet taste is liberating — and perhaps a slight bit dangerous.
Because where one bottle of regular Mad Elf can tire the palate due to its overwhelming sweetness, the Grand Cru is eminently drinkable. But it still carries a hefty 11% ABV, so be careful not to down the whole big bottle too quickly if you’ve got plans for later.
Takeaway: If you’re a beer lover (or have one on your gift list) and you see Mad Elf Grand Cru on the shelf, buy some immediately.