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On Tap: Popular Tröegs’ Elf brews reflect the festive spirit of the season

by on December 01, 2017 11:37 AM

If it’s the holiday season, it means one thing for Tröegs Brewery in Hershey: Mad Elf season.

Since Tröegs came out with the big Belgian-style beer (11 ABV) in 2003, it has become one of the brews many craft-beer lovers most look forward to each year. Mad Elf, which is available from mid-October through December, also is one of the beers that helped put Tröegs on the craft-beer map.

“It’s really found a place in people’s holiday traditions,” says Jeff Herb, marketing communications coordinator for Tröegs. “We think it gives them something to look forward to. The festive nature of the beer echoes the sentiments of the holiday season.”

Mad Elf includes chocolate, Munich, and pilsner malts; Hallertau and Saaz hops; spicy Belgian yeast, and, of course, cherries and honey. The brewers recommend it be served at 50 to 55 degrees.

In 2006, the beer was rated the top Christmas beer by Joe Sixpack (aka Don Russell, an award-winning Philadelphia writer) in his book, Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, Most Unusual Beers of Christmas.

About Mad Elf, Russell wrote, “Though it’s brewed with honey and tart Pennsylvania cherries, the dominant character here is a ginger and clove spiciness, a product of its unique pair of Belgian yeast strains. Think fruitcake, but not the awful one made by your Aunt Bertha.”

Herb shares the story of how Mad Elf originated. In 2002, Tröegs founders Chris and John Trogner started talking about the upcoming holidays and wanting to brew a special beer to celebrate the holiday season. They wanted something that could be enjoyed from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

The talk led to a big Belgian-style ale brewed with cherries and honey. On the first brew day, they added the fruit and honey to the mix and went home for the night. When they returned, nearly half the batch had bubbled down the drain.

“There was a strong fruity aroma in the air,” John Trogner says. “We ran back to the fermentation cellar and there was this foamy mess all over the floor.”

The setback didn’t deter them, and a year later, the first bottling of Mad Elf happened. Surprisingly to them, it was an immediate hit.

“Mad Elf appealed not just to beer lovers, but also people who usually don’t drink beer the rest of the year,” Herb says. “Over time, it eventually became an essential part of the holidays for many people. It’s really found a place in people’s holiday traditions.”

Which is what the Trogners had wanted. They believed the 11-percent ABV brew would “brighten moods during holiday gatherings … and help bridge the divide between beer and wine.”

Herb says no matter how much Mad Elf Tröegs brews each year it never seems enough. “We try to brew enough each year to allow for slow, steady growth wherever our beer is sold,” he says.

Tröegs started brewing in Harrisburg 20 years ago, but as the brewery grew, it needed to move its operation to a bigger space. In 2011, the new Tröegs brewery opened in Hershey.

Mad Elf has become the basis for other creative brews from the Trogner brothers. Naked Elf was about “deconstructing Mad Elf to its basic essentials and highlight the spicy Belgian yeast that is a key flavor characteristic of the beer.” The brewers pulled out the cherries, honey, and chocolate malt to showcase notes of cinnamon, allspice, clove, and tangy fruity esters.

Wild Elf includes Balaton cherries grown in Adams County. The beer then goes through a long, secondary fermentation in wood barrels and is a bottle-conditioned limited release.

“Since 2010, back when our brewery was still in Harrisburg, we’ve been squirreling away Mad Elf in oak barrels, and each one has developed differently,” John Trogner says. “Some have notes of toasted vanilla and coconut, others are dominated by a sour acidity, and the oldest are rich with deep, raisiny stone fruit.”

Then, just last month, Tröegs, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, released The Mad Elf Grand Cru. Herb says the brewery likes to think of it as the Mad Elf “Director’s Cut.”

“This special limited cork and cage bottle release will be chock-full of tart Balaton cherries, wildflower honey, and demerara sugar, and will elevate Mad Elf to a whole new level,” he says. “The addition of the Balaton cherries will produce a more prominent tart pucker compared to standard Mad Elf.”

As friends and families prepare to gather together around cozy fires and lighted trees, many also will be sharing glasses of Mad Elf. In fact, some go to great lengths to make sure the beer is part of their holiday tradition.

“Last year, Chris helped a grandmother load some Mad Elf cases into her car,” Herb says. “She told him that her family would sit around the fire, drink Mad Elf, and decorate the tree together. It was like a family tradition. She also mentioned that since moving to West Virginia, she wasn’t able to buy it there, since Tröegs doesn’t distribute to West Virginia. She was forced to seek it elsewhere to keep the tradition alive!

“In essence, she had to bootleg Mad Elf to continue her family tradition!”


David Pencek is communications manager for Schlow Centre Region Library.



David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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