(Editor’s note: Mad Elf has not won at the Great American Beet Festival. The story has been corrected.)
It might be the middle of November but the Christmas beer season is now in full effect. Many of these beers have been on store shelves for a couple weeks now, booting what was left of the various pumpkin-themed efforts, but there’s one that’s become synonymous with Christmas, especially throughout Pennsylvania – one that put Tröegs Brewing Company on the map.
Sought after by beer connoisseurs throughout the country, Mad Elf has become the staple of Tröegs’ lineup, a limited release that’s available for less than two months of the year. Officially touted as an ale brewed with honey and cherries, along with Hallertau and Saaz hops, Mad Elf is a whopper of a beer, both in taste and ABV – at 11 percent, it’s the highest of any Tröegs product that gets heavily distributed. It’s a beer that, for many, is as much of a Christmas tradition as wrapping gifts or hanging ornaments and it’s tough to imagine the first batch of Mad Elf was brewed for just 20 or 30 kegs.
It all began back in 2002 at the small, original Harrisburg-based brewery, when Tröegs’ founders Chris and John Trogner were loading a truck and noticed wine barrels inside, sparking a conversation about flavors and techniques and prompting the brother’s to want to create a holiday beer. But creating a beer that relied heavily on unique ingredients, such as honey, proved challenging.
“For the inaugural batch, we figured we needed about 300 pounds of honey, John Trogner said in an interview. “We didn’t even know how to get that much honey. At that point, our experience with honey had been limited to those little bears you buy at the grocery store. 300 pounds seemed like a ton. We eventually found a guy only about 30 miles from the brewery.”
Today, the company still purchases the honey used in Mad Elf from that same guy, only now the order has increased to about 25,000 pounds a year. The same can be said for the cherries, with each batch of Mad Elf requiring more than 2,300 pounds of the fruit. These ingredients make the brewing process much more difficult, according to John Trogner, and to best understand this year’s process, you’d have to first rewind to the summer months.
Preparation for Mad Elf begins in mid-July, as the production team takes about four weeks strategizing the schedules for brewing, packaging and distributing to the company’s 10-state radius. Over the course of the next two months or so, Mad Elf takes over the brewhouse and, after close to two decades of brewing the limited edition beer, Tröegs has it down to a science.
“The brewers work closely with our quality team to ensure the yeast is happy, healthy and ready to ferment multiple tanks every week,” Trogner added. “The whole process takes about six weeks from brewing through fermentation – then it’s on to packaging.”
Once of the best kept secrets to Pennsylvanians, Mad Elf has received so much love on a national level that the beer drinking community is well aware of its prestige, which includes several notable honors. The success of the beer has led Tröegs to create a number of spin-off beers, enhancing or adjusting Mad Elf’s flavors to either create a more robust, flavorful beer, or a much-simpler effort. There’s the original spin-off Naked Elf, the Splinter Series’ – part of the wood-aging program – Wild Elf and the immensely popular Mad Elf Grand Cru – which also includes a behemoth 13.3 percent ABV bourbon barrel-aged edition, a deliciously boozy effort only available on tap at the brewery. Trust me, that one is well worth making the trip! Mad Elf Grand Cru, originally released in 750 ml bottles to celebrate Tröegs’s 20th Anniversary, is what Trogner lovingly describes as the “director’s cut” to the original trailblazer. It doesn’t appear that Trogner has his sights set on any other new iterations any time soon, however.
There’s one major problem with Mad Elf: it’s not available all year long. It’s really a small price to pay. But many drinkers have solved that problem, simply purchasing abundant amounts of the beer and then storing it in a cool, dry place to enjoy later – sometimes it’s months later, sometimes it’s years later. Many believe aging Mad Elf will naturally accentuate the previously mentioned underlying flavors, though many others dispute this idea, claiming natural aging is nothing more than a waste of time.
“Everyone has different tastes and palates,” Trogner claimed. “Aging Mad Elf for 12-18 months will allow the alcohol and sweetness to mellow a bit and bring out more of the chocolate malt character.”
Waiting can prove to be difficult with a coveted beer of this nature but saving one for Christmas Eve dinner is something you won’t regret, something I know I’ve done almost every year for a decade now. Trogner understands what Mad Elf means to many who have grown with the beer over the last 18 years.
“It’s amazing, because Mad Elf really seems to have found a place in people’s holiday traditions,” Trogner said. “We think it gives them something to look forward to. The festive nature of the beer echoes the sentiments of the holiday season.”