Each year for the past six, Tröegs Independent Brewing cofounder John Trogner has stashed some amount of Mad Elf, the Pennsylvania brewery’s holiday seasonal, in oak barrels.
Brewed for the late fall and winter months, Mad Elf is a blanket in a glass, warming drinkers with notes of cherries and honey and an alcohol content (11 percent) that would make even the Abominable Snowman a little flushed.
“We’ve gone to some really neat events where bars will squirrel away some Mad Elf,” says Trogner, noting that the venues will serve various vintages of the brew to patrons side by side. “I really like how that changed the character of the beer.”
Trogner and his brewing team decided to gain more control of the aging process, putting aside barrels of Mad Elf to ferment with various yeasts, as well as Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. In one barrel, the brewers soaked the booze on eastern Pennsylvania cherries, allowing “the critters that rode in on them” to add to the fermentation.
“We saved the cherry pits,” says Trogner. “Whatever’s growing there, we’ll be using that through all of our barrel program.”
The end result of all that aging is Wild Elf, a blend of all six years of aged Mad Elf being released in limited quantities this month.
Trogner’s approach to creating Wild Elf is not dissimilar to how a winemaker blends wine. To decide on the final blend, a team of Tröegs brewers pulls samples from barrels and sniffs, swishes, and spits (or not) their way through them.
“The six-year version had a lot of raisin and port wine,” says Trogner. “And there was one that tasted like vinegar. We were like, ‘Wow, this is really wild.’ ”
The finished beer looks dark red in the glass and tastes like a slightly sour version of Mad Elf. The brewery lists tasting notes including vanilla, oak, and white peppercorn, but figs and brown bread are in there, too. At 11 percent alcohol by volume, this isn’t any lighter than its sister beer, but the tartness adds levity and complexity that raise this one to celebratory status.
Wild Elf is part of Tröegs’s Splinter Series, named for the giant, floor-to-ceiling wooden foeders that now fill its tasting room. Each of these Italian-made fermentation barrels is constructed with dozens of staves of Italian, Hungarian, and French oak, air-dried for three years. Their installation will allow the brewery to release Wild Elf and other oak-aged beers in larger quantities going forward. A limited number of bottles of Wild Elf will hit Massachusetts this month.
gary dzenGary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen