Holidays in Philly

Pennsylvania’s crazy popular Mad Elf beer literally started with a boom

The brothers Trogner had never made a brew this strong; their closest was the Troegenator, at 8 percent. What came next ended with a bang.


Mad Elf is so good and demand for the beer so high that at least one person has traveled from California to get it. By this time of the year, as supplies of the brew start getting scarce at beer stores, bars and restaurants, people use Mad Elf as a form of currency, bartering it for other rare beers. Mostly, though, the craziness has to do with the actual drinking of Mad Elf.

“We have more stories about them inviting their friends and families over, and the Mad Elf getting blamed for what they end up doing,” says John Trogner, co-founder and co-owner of Troegs. …Usually it’s the aunt or uncle who hadn’t had it before and doing things they wouldn’t (normally) do.”

Since 2002, Mad Elf has been Pennsylvania’s holiday beverage of choice. The cherry and honey flavored beer with an 11 percent alcohol content sells out every year with beer stores having to limit sales per person or overcharge. It is a beer sought after equally by beer snobs and mainstream drinkers.

And this beer, which makes so many people go crazy, has a crazy origin story to match: Mad Elf started with a literal boom.

The story begins in Harrisburg, where John and Chris Trogner were presiding over Troegs, then a small brewery that had been open for just six years. They were putting together variety packs for Christmas, not exactly a fun process. It involved them placing different beers into six packs, one-by-one, and the tedium boiled over into what John Trogner describes as “delirium.”

At some point, a delivery truck came with some extra wine barrels. In their delirious state, making a holiday beer and putting it into a wine barrel sounded like a good idea. They discussed cherries and honey for flavor and because it was the holidays the brothers figured “it sure would be nice to have 11 percent beer to go along with friends and family.”

The original recipe for Mad Elf was born. After speaking with a couple of local breweries who expressed interest, the Trogners decided to make a batch of 20 to 30 kegs. But they’d never made a beer as strong as Mad Elf. Their closest was the Troegenator, at 8 percent. They combined cherries, malt and yeast the best way they knew how and let it sit.  

Three days or so later, they were giving a tour of the brewery when John Trogner recalls the intense aroma of honey and cherries. The Troegs brewery did not normally smell of honey and cherries. So they went to check: Turned out the yeast had foamed about three times more than an average beer, and their concoction exploded through the top of the fermenter tank.  

“It was all over the ground,” Trogner says. “A sea of froth, like 20 feet. It frothed out so much.”

They lost about half the batch. The other half didn’t explode onto a floor, but it went nearly as quickly at local bars. Mad Elf was an immediate success. The name came from Trogner’s brother-in-law during a drunken brainstorming session, and a local Harrisburg artist sketched the image of the elf.   

In Philadelphia, Mike “Scoats” Scotese’s Gray Lodge Pub got part of the first batch in December 2002. The first few years, Gray Lodge Pub was one of the few places in the city Mad Elf was available. The bar would attract large crowds and sell out of Mad Elf quickly.

“It’s hard to be unhappy with 11 percent beer,” Scotese said

Troegs can never make enough Mad Elf to match the crazy demand. Most recently, production has been 7,000 barrels — the equivalent of 1.7 million pints. Troegs, which sold a total of 44,000 barrels in 2012, can’t manage anymore. But Mad Elf is always a top priority for the brewery. Trogner says Troegs plans equipment installations and improvements every year based on Mad Elf.

An idea that came from boredom has become a Pennsylvania Christmas tradition. 

“This time of the year, there wasn’t a lot of these individual, unique beers,” Trogner says. “I think we somehow found a need that needed to be met.”

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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