AleSmith Grand Cru: A winter winner
AleSmith surprised me by popping up on several 'best brewers' lists lately and I thought it was past time I gave them a better look. The San Diego brewery has only been around since 1995, and my experience with them had always been limited to washing down a heavy meal at a place with a stellar beer list, paying more attention to the food than the beer. It usually took an extensive list to find AleSmith on it, but their beers are showing up more often these days. For this review, unfairly perhaps, I decided to sample their attempt at one of the most difficult styles, a style I have already collected too many favorite examples of, and lesser brewers typically botch by shooting for complexity, but ending with a muddled mess. Not AleSmith. Their Grand Cru is one of the finest American examples of a Dark Belgian Strong Ale you'll ever need to find. They were more than up to my challenge.
Big, heavy, dark ales are just what the doctor orders for the cold winter months. Something with enough alcohol to warm the bones, and enough flavor to enjoy sipping slowly. This is not the time for chugging back light lagers in the sun.
This Grand Cru is massive, heavy, full, complex, strong…. Any adjective you can think of that describes a proper, solid winter beer. It is not for the fence-sitters not sure if they actually even like beer. If your usual beer of choice is something with 'Lite' on the can, steer well wide of this monster. It is full-flavored, and comes out punching.
It doesn't look very scary on first sight. AleSmith's version of a dark Belgian ale is more of a mid-toned brown with a tan head that holds but isn't spectacular. The tons of suspended yeast make it hazy and dense. Pour it carefully to avoid the huge chunks of sediment on the bottom, unless you like that sort of thing. It does change the nature of the beer, though. They are proud of this yeast, and rightfully so, as it comes from an original strain from a Belgian Trappist Monastery. You'll smell it dominating things right away in the spicy aroma. There is sweetness and depth from the malt, as well, and it all nearly hides the 10+% alcohol level.
All the spice and carbonation sting the tongue in the first split second of tasting, but then the soft, enveloping malt comes around to smooth it back down again. It is big and heavy, as promised, but extremely drinkable all the same. The overall effect is a crazy jumble of sensations that stay balanced and very enjoyable. That initial sharp spiciness is met with a soft creaminess. The flavors tumble from tangy citrus, to cherry, to juicy – almost syrupy – plum, and then end with a nudge of hops to dry it back out. You probably won't notice it much during all these gymnastics the taste buds will be doing, but don't forget how much alcohol this stuff packs. It is one of those dangerously deceptive beers – there's too much going on to notice all the alcohol.
This ale would go great with any type of beefy dinner, but especially well with anything that is barbecued. I don't think they do it on purpose, but AleSmith has a knack for making beers that pair well with food – at least the heavier, manly style food. It's also a great beer to pull out with a plate of sharp, flavorful cheese in front of a fire. In fact, it will go as well with a bleu as any wine you'll ever find.
The AleSmith guys are up and coming stars. They began as home brewers just trying to make the best beer they could. Hopefully, they can keep that ethic as they grow, as they are sure to, beyond winning ribbons at the California State Fair. Not that there is anything wrong with that, considering the strong competition that state provides these days. Rather than inventing some completely new beast, ala Dogfish Head, to entice customers with something strange and different all the time, they just brew outstanding beer that is mostly true to the style. They're about as good as it gets in American brewing today and, if it happens to be winter, their Grand Cru is their best.