‘Tis the season for Mad Elf – and it’s hard to find

SANTA CLAUS made his first appearance of the season yesterday at the end of the Thanksgiving parade, but if he was looking to bring joy to the hearts of local beer drinkers, he was too late.

One of his own elves beat him to the punch.

I refer, of course, to the The Mad Elf, the holiday ale from Troegs Brewing in Harrisburg. If this is not the best new beer I’ve guzzled this year, it’s definitely the early favorite to sweep the Blow Your Socks Off division. And I’m not alone in that estimation.

In the days after it was bottled on Oct. 27, beer distributors were besieged by a fevered run that cleared every single case off the shelves within 48 hours of delivery. Retailers reported numerous instances of customers ordering the beer weeks before delivery, and then showing up and filling their Toyotas with a half-dozen cases at a time.

A full month before Christmas, it is almost entirely gone. If you don’t believe me, try to find a case. The brewery bottled about 2,500 cases – an average run for a specialty ale from a micro. Since this was just the second year for Mad Elf (last season, it was it was sold in kegs only), the brewery wasn’t certain how well it would sell.

“We figured we’d make enough to send two to five cases to each distributor, that would be enough,” said Chris Trogner, who runs the brewery with his brother, John. “The plan was to put out enough bottles to sell from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“I don’t even think we made it to Thanksgiving.”

The first cases went quickly.

Matt Guyer from the Beer Yard in Wayne, for example, pre-sold every one of his cases before they even crossed the county line.

Almost immediately, distributors began calling for more. And not just a few more; they wanted 30 or 50 extra cases.

That’s all by word of mouth, too. Troegs doesn’t advertise. It chatted up the beer in its monthly newsletter and its Web site. There was a good buzz about it at online beer-rating sites like BeerAdvocate.Com.

“We were getting a dozen calls a day from distributors looking for more. I got a call from one guy who drove down to Allentown from Scranton and bought 14 cases,” Trogner said. “It just blindsided us.”

I’ve only seen one other frenzy like it: the 1999 release of Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, the record-breaking big-alcohol brew from Delaware.

Dogfish Head is well known for its huge beers.

Troegs, on the other hand, has a reputation for making nice versions of standard ales: a crisp pilsner, a well-balanced amber, a meaty stout. Until now, its goofy-named double bock, Troegenator, was the closest the brewery got to “extreme.”

The Mad Elf doesn’t just push the envelope, it rips it to shreds.

It’s brewed with honey and tart cherries, but those flavors hardly dominate. They’re like the Pips behind Gladys Knight.

And Gladys? Well, she’s seducing you with what seems like ginger and cloves but is actually the spice from two strains of Belgian yeast. Think of fruitcake, but not the one made by your Aunt Bertha. This one feels like it’s been spiked with a cask of crisp winesap cider, or maybe just a forgotten can of Frank’s Black Wishniak that just reached its expiration date.

The dark, ruby-colored beer doesn’t pour with much of a head, but that’s no big deal. Serve it in a wide-mouth goblet and enjoy the aroma. Oh, and hold onto something while you’re drinking: It rings the bell at 11 percent alcohol.

“John and I collectively just thought of what would be an interesting beer for the season,” said Chris. “There’s definitely an influence of Belgian. [Rodenbach Alexander?] But we weren’t really aiming for a specific style. We just talked about what we would like to drink during the holidays.”

To me, that’s craft-made beer at its finest: Forget about focus groups or adhering only to stylistic guidelines. Make a beer you’d like to drink, and hope your customers will enjoy it, too.

Only next time, make a little more of it.

For those who missed the bottles, keep an eye out for The Mad Elf on tap at area specialty beer bars after Dec. 15. I’ll give you the heads-up when I find out where it’s being poured.

About the label: The Mad Elf was sketched by the guys at the brewery, then finished off by a Harrisburg freelance artist named Ryan Bowman.

Troegs ran into a few problems with the feds, who initially questioned the brewing process and the wording on the label. Increasingly concerned about the formulation of liquor-spiked malternatives like Bacardi Silver, they wanted to know exactly how much of the beer’s alcohol was derived from honey and cherry. Only about a tenth of the alcohol, it turns out.

 Beer bellies

Coors is jumping onto the low-carb bandwagon with Aspen Edge. It’ll join the wildly successful Michelob Ultra, along with Rolling Rock Green Light and F.X. Matt’s Accel, at a health spa near you. Labatt, meanwhile, is testing Sterling north of the border, and Miller is expected to cough up something.

The fitness craze is spreading to malternatives, too. Something called Thin Ice, flavored with Splenda sugar substitute, claims it has just one gram of carbs. (FYI for weight-watchers: Vodka, gin and whiskey have ZERO carbs.)

Not that anyone asked, but here’s a sixpack of low-carb beers you won’t be seeing:

  1. Iron City Gutless.
  2. Guinness Slim.
  3. Sam Adams’ Abs.
  4. Colt 4.5g.
  5. Heineskim.
  6. Duff Buff.

 Beer radar

It takes a lot of beer to extinguish the fire after a mouthful of spicy pad Thai. That’s one possible reason Singha, the famous lager from Bangkok, is now available in 12-packs . . . Watch out for re-pours at the Linc. People Paper staffer Jim Nolan broke the news last month that some vendors were serving beer in used cups to fool the concessionaire’s inventory-counters, enabling them to pocket the extra bucks. Though several vendors were arrested with large wads of cash, my sources tell me it’s still happening.

Demand a clean plastic cup!

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Affligem Noel.

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