Friday, November 28, 2008

Ale Asylum Mercy Grand Cru

Grand Cru. Does anyone really know what this means? The wine industry has a very specific meaning for it. The beer industry does not. But there does not appear, to me, to be any reason why the beer industry cannot co-opt the wine industry meaning. Doing so would take some discipline, in the lack of wine industry's legal and business processes that enforce the standard.

So, what does Grand Cru mean to the wine industry? In France, indeed anywhere in the world, certain locales, because of weather and soil conditions, are more ideal than others for growing grapes. They are places where, if the conditions are perfect, will grow the absolute best grapes capable of being produced. Think about it this way: regardless of how great the weather, regardless of how great the treatment, regardless of the timing of the picking, the grapes grown at Wollersheim will not be as good as the grapes grown at Chateau Haut-Brion. They cannot be. In fact, according to a Bordeaux classification, Chateau Haut-Brion is one of the five best places (the fourth best actually) in Bordeaux for the growing of grapes. Thus, it gets the label "Grand Cru" - the vineyard (Chateau), the land, is given the designation - not the wine.

We could do this in the beer world. We could designate areas of the world, areas of the United States, areas of Wisconsin that are ideal for the growing of grains or hops. In theory, these could be different for different varieties. Maybe one place is best for growing Robust barley, while another is ideal for growing Cascade hops, while another best for growing other types of barleys or other types of hops. Or, perhaps like in France, Wisconsin could be granted by a larger National body, the right to grant "Grand Cru" designations to barley and/or hop fields. You get the point. Let's say, for example, that Chilton, WI turned out to be the best place in the state of Wisconsin for growing Robust barley, a brewing-quality six-row barley, any beer made entirely (or to some before-agreed percentage) from Chilton Robust barley could be labeled Robust Grand Cru.

The Grand Cru designation would carry quite a bit of market premium as customers could be guaranteed that this beer was made with the absolutely best barley ingredient. Of course, it would still be incumbent upon the brewery to make a quality product. The Grand Cru designation is one that only applies to the raw material, not to the quality of production (that's what traditional trademarks are for). The biggest downside to this is actually on the malting side where those grains designated as grand cru could not be mingled with other commodity grains. It would require quasi-de-commodification of the grain market - something that I'm sure Briess is not exactly excited about.

Until then, the general nomenclature in the beer industry is that Grand Cru simply designates a beer, usually of some traditionally Belgian style, that is of "highest quality." And so it is with Ale Asylum's new Mercy Grand Cru. A Belgian style ale of the highest quality. As with most true Belgians this beer doesn't really fit into a style; it isn't a blonde, it's not really a tripel, or a quad, or a dubbel - it is sort of a mish mash of all of the above. What it is, is really, really good.

Ale Asylum Mercy Grand Cru

Appearance: Served at 45 degrees, the beer pours with a thin wispy head on top of a tawny, well-muscled body; the legs on this looker are terrific
Aroma: soft, woody, earthy aromas of cherry and a subtle lemony brightness or grassiness; the end of the nose has a nice, warm booziness
Flavor: where the aromas are soft and inviting, the flavor is crisp and multi-layered; clear distinction in the complexity between malts and fruity yeastiness; it tastes like looks with a firm body, strong alcohol finish, and deep malt flavors
Body: firm and thinly bubbled with a long bright, alcohol finish
Drinkability: perfect to pairing with rustic spinach and braised chicken with pan seared potatoes (it goes with left over turkey, too); although I prefer it in a brandy snifter, with the lights low and a good movie (say, SuperTroopers? ;) and a better woman (or man, if that's your thing)
Summary: Although I think it's probably a bit nit-picky, one frustration with the Wisconsin craft brew industry is the lack of creativity in packaging; Spotted Cow, Hopalicious, Alt, Hop Whore, Mercy - all packaged in 12oz bottles with screw-top or pry-off tops. Very few bombers (only Central Waters' Coffee Stout and Lakefront's Bridge Burner, that I know of) and very few 750s (only the two New Glarus fruit beers). This beer is begging for a corked, caged, fancy-labeled 750ml or 22oz bomber. Heck, even a 500ml Grolsch-style bottle would be better. Still, an awesome beer that will leave you begging for Mercy.


  1. For beer, I have always read Grand Cru to simply mean BIG and Belgian. If you look at all the Belgian grand Cru's (Chimay, Roddenbach, Val Deu, etc.) they are all the biggest and boldest of the breweries beers. Certainly not a style (what does Roddenbach have in common with chimay?) but within the single brewery the Grand Cru is the biggest offering, at least in every example I can think of.

  2. Always appreciate the honest, thorough writings I find on this site.

    Anyhoo, I wondered this myself a couple months ago when I went in the store and was told Rodenbach Grand Cru was almost like vinegar in its sourness. I recalled having Alesmith Grand Cru which was more of a malty undertaking. Strange though I think Matt's simple theory is what it boils down to for the most part.


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