Mad Elf: Santa’s special hooch
If you think you’re too old for Christmas, then you never met the Mad Elf.
He is the stuff of legends, a crazy, drunken deranged elf that pours perfectly into an oversized wine goblet. The Mad Elf is a Belgian-style ale brewed with honey and cherries — oh, and it weighs in at a whopping 11-percent ABV. It’s basically liquid Christmas in a bottle, to borrow a phrase from its creator.
“A lot of holiday beers are spicy or taste like gingerbread cookies,” said Jeff Herb, media and communications coordinator for Troegs Brewery in Hershey. “Mad Elf is this chewy, 11-percent, cherry, sweet but a little bit sour … it’s its own thing.”
The story goes like this. Back in 2001, founders John and Chris Troegner wanted to create a festive, holiday beer. Before they had even concocted a recipe, a friend came up with the name, Mad Elf. Then, someone sketched a cross-eyed elf with a wicked smile on a cocktail napkin. No one at the table could have predicted the hysteria over that jolly, inebriated elf.
“They had no idea it would become as popular as it has,” Herb said. “That first year, they did such a small run because they didn’t know how much they would sell and it was so expensive to make. It sold out immediately.”
Troegs Brewery, which opened in Harrisburg in 1997, only brews Mad Elf once a year. Bottles are released in mid-October followed by the draft version around Thanksgiving. By the first week of December, the brewery’s general store was sold out.
“Each year it gets crazier and crazier,” Herb said, noting that each year they increase production. “As soon as people find out about it, people are running in and grabbing 2-3 cases apiece.”
The Mad Elf takes about six weeks to make, from fermentation to bottle. That’s double the time it takes to brew a normal beer. Herb said he’s been fielding e-mails about its release date since the summer.
“It’s one of those beers people go ape shit about,” he said.
Part of the appeal is the taste, but another huge component is the exclusivity. It’s only available for a little more than two months a year.
“I think it would sell year round but it’s one of those things where if you put out a beer year round, it kind of loses its appeal or the excitement factor,” Herb said. “It’s like waking up Christmas morning and knowing what you’re getting.”
Expansion not in plans
There are no plans to expand right now. Troegs is available in eight states (Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware) and Washington, D.C.
They are brewing 40,000 barrels a year with the capacity to produce 100,000. They reel off 100 bottles per minute.
John Troegner is listed as head brew master, but the company employs seven full-time brew masters.
What’s in Mad Elf?
Basic ingredients, really. The main malt in Mad Elf is a chocolate malt. That is combined with sweet and sour cherries, along with Pennsylvania honey and a Belgian yeast strain. The hop bill is very light, with just 15 IBUs (international bittering units, the standard for measuring bitterness in beer).
Let it age
Herb recommends throwing a case of Mad Elf in your beer cellar and letting it age for 1-2 years. Doing so brings out the sweetness in the cherries and disguises some of the heat from the alcohol. The result is a full-bodied, smooth beer.
Recently, we paid $70 for a case of Mad Elf (Bella Vista Beer Distributor), but it retails for $56.99 at Troegs Brewery. If you go there, don’t plan on taking a case home because they’re already sold out. However, most local beer distributors in and around Hershey sell it at retail price.
Bars pouring Mad Elf Ale on draft (per PhillyTapFinder.com):
City Tap House
For Pete’s Sake
Daly’s Irish Pub
2nd Street Brew House
Kite & Key
Fox & Hound