Mad Elf Ale? 12 winter brews with serious flavor

Don't be turned off by the whimsical names. These brews are worth trying, but you have to get them while they're still around.

This time of year the holiday spirit gets into everything — even beer. Although they have season-themed names like Santa’s Butt, Mad Elf Ale and Celebration, they are still 100 percent delicious. To get the skinny on fun holiday brews, we asked Josh Bernstein, author of the recently published book “Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World’s Craft Beer Revolution,” to share his favorite holiday-inspired tipples, along with adding a couple of our own. “Christmas is a traditional time of colder nights and when people rely on spices like cinnamon and nutmeg,” Bernstein said.  “And [the beers] are something to celebrate because they are only around for a couple months.”

Troegs Mad Elf Ale: Drinking too much of this ruby red brew might make you mad too, given that it’s 11 percent alcohol. But sip the cherry, honey and chocolate-laced beer slowly and it may bring you holiday cheer. “It’s definitely a fantastic beer that is only around for November and December,” Bernstein said.

Santa’s Little Helper: Every year, Denmark’s Mikkeller brewery produces an 11-percent strong Belgian-style ale called Santa’s Little Helper. With flavors of orange peel, coriander and a little chocolate, the dark brew is more like mommy and daddy’s little helper.

Christmas Ale: Since 1975, Anchor Steam has created a rich, spiced Christmas Ale, which is released from early November to mid-January. Every year they use a new recipe and put a different tree on the label (this year being a bristlecone pine, a tree found high in California’s White Mountains), with the intent to celebrate the joy and newness of life.  Definitely something we can toast!

Two Tortugas: Karl Strauss brews up a holiday quadruple ale so good, it won the bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival. “It’s another big, over-the-top beer that has flavors of coffee,” said Bernstein. The name is a play on the song “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and the lyrics have inspired a series of holiday ales each year, this one a take on “two turtle doves.” But, since sea turtles are more prevalent in San Diego where it’s brewed, they decided to swap animals.

3 French Hens: Also utilizing the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” Bruery, in Orange County, Calif., has been following the lyrics to make some tasty brews. They use French oak barrels to age the beer, making it a bold and spicy Belgian-style ale. They’ve also released 4 Calling Birds, a dark ale with notes of banana bread, dark fruits and licorice; Two Turtle Doves modeled after the turtle candies, and A Partridge in a Pear Tree, which is another Belgian-style dark strong ale. 


Old Jubilation Ale: Colorado-based Avery Brewing Company makes this mahogany-hued, English old ale from September to December. “It’s going to be a bit more warming because it has 8 percent [alcohol],” said Bernstein. “It goes great with the roasted holiday meats and you can easily bring it out to the dinner table.”

Mahr’s Christmas Bock: Germans get beer, so it’s not surprising that the Mahr’s-Brau makes an awesome Christmas brew. The beverage is hard to get in the States, but if you manage to snag one, it’s worth it for the smooth, robust flavor and light-hop bitterness.

Santa’s Butt: This rich winter porter by Ridgeway got its name from a children’s story which read, “And Santa sat on his great butt, drinking a hearty brew.” But also, a “butt” is what the English call a large barrel used to brew beer in. No matter which end you look at it from, this brew is perfect for cold nights huddled close to the fire.

Insanely Bad Elf: Also brewed by England’s Ridgeway, Bernstein says both the beers “actually taste pretty good too so it’s not just pure gimmick.” This winter brew also packs a wallop with 12-percent alcohol, making this naughty elf so good. Other holiday cheer from this English company include Reindeer’s Revolt, Pickled Santa, Lump of Coal and a series of Bad Elf beers.

Jenlain Noel: Hailing from France, this holiday beer comes on strong, flavor-wise. It’s made with French barley malts and uses three types of aromatic hops from Alsace, giving the dark amber beer hints of clove and honey.

Celebration Ale: Every year California-based brewery Sierra Nevada sells the dry-hopped Celebration Ale all over the country. The amber-hued beer has won numerous awards and rightly so; it’s smooth, easy to drink and pairs with most foods, especially winter ones like roasted meat, cooked fruit and even nice stinky cheese and crackers.

R.I.P.A. on Rye: To round out this holiday beer special, we bring you He’Brew’s strong R.I.P.A on Rye, which gets a kick from being aged in whiskey barrels. “If you like a little whiskey in your pants it’s not a bad thing,” said Bernstein. “Plus, the rye gives it a little spicy character.”

Do you have a favorite winter brew? Tell us about it in the comments. 

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Linnea Covington is a freelancer writer and eater who will try any drink, dish, or sweet at least once, especially if it involves chili or bourbon.