Finally, ’tis the season when we’re transitioning out of the glut of Pumpkin/Octoberfest/Autumn beers that flood our stores from August to October, and we’re moving into one of my favorite beer seasons, Winter/Christmas beers! That means that at long last one of my all time favorite brews is back on the market, The Mad Elf by Tröegs Brewing Company.
Tröegs was founded in 1997 by the Trogner brothers with the intention of putting the Pennsylvania craft brew scene on the map. Along with the help of other great PA based brewers like Weyerbacher and Victory (and to a lesser extent Yards), and cool brewpubs like Iron Hill, they were successful in making Pennsylvania one of the United State’s top beer destinations.
The Mad Elf a winter seasonal which they started making in 2002 (I believe?). I had it for the first time in 2004, when it was nearly impossible to find in New Jersey, and have been a huge advocate of the beer ever since. It is released in late October, and is typically sold out in the marketplace by Christmas. If you can find any stock in stores after New Years you can consider yourself very lucky… Either your local beer shop manager was smart and loaded up, or the other customers that shop there weren’t smart and don’t know what they’re missing! I usually start stockpiling the beer in late November to make sure that I have a case or two laying around to hold me over for a while, and every year when I run out I curse myself for not buying more. I always make sure that no matter what I have a couple of bottles left for my birthday in early March, and many times the amount of will power required to not drink them beforehand is extraordinary!
So let’s talk about the beer itself. Mad Elf is what’s considered a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, brewed with locally cultivated honey as well as sweet and sour cherries. In the glass is a full bodied beer with a moderately clear amber caramel color, reminiscent of cognac, with a half fingers-width whitish tan head and minimal retention or lacing. On the nose are aromas of candied cherry, orange zest, toffee, toast and faint nuances of milk chocolate. On the palate the cherry plays as more sour than candied and the chocolate notes are more assertive. Many state that they get hints of bitter cocoa, but I find it to be more of a smooth milk chocolate and that the bitterness derives from undertones of flamed orange zest and orange pith. The opening is relatively soft, but the beer shines in the mid palate and finish, which is moderately long, but not as warm as one would expect considering the ABV is 11%, which I personally find endearing. Some of these high alcohol brews are beginning to drink more like bourbon than beer.
As far as food pairings go I would recommend winged game or lighter meats such as pork and wild boar, preferably in some type of reduced fruit or fortified wine sauce: think turkey with cranberry sauce, seared pork with stewed cherries, duck with a raspberry & port wine reduction, etc. The beer would also pair nicely with a variety of cheeses ranging from firm and sharp, to soft and aromatic (a nice way to say stinky!), or even bitter chocolate desserts like flourless chocolate tarts.
One thing I must note is that there always seems to be a bit of variation in the taste and quality of Mad Elf from year to year. I find this refreshing because it shows me that the beer isn’t simply a consistent formula that they follow, rather it’s more like making wine where adjustments and judgement calls need to be made and the end product won’t always taste the same. I once had a bit of fun with some beer geek friends where we sampled bottles of Mad Elf from various years to assess the differences. Not only was it was a blast (and quite intoxicating), but it was very eye opening on how different the beer could be from year to year. I will say that this year’s Mad Elf is a slight step down from some previous years. I don’t know if that’s due to a variation in the quality of the raw materials (i.e. cherries, local honey, hops, etc.) or if it’s possibly due to an increase in case production. Regardless, saying that the quality has taken a dip is the equivalent of saying that Peyton Manning had an off year because he threw 44 touchdowns instead of 46. Either way it’s pretty fricken amazing!
PP Score: 4.22
Notes: Best consumed in a tulip, chalice or snifter at cellar temperature (50-58F)
Edited Note: While it wasn’t intentional, it’s absolutely fitting that a writeup on one of my favorite all time beers ended up being my 100th post. I was a craft brew fan long before I was a food snob or wine geek! Very cool stuff… Thanks everyone for your support, and I look forward to giving you 100 more to read!