Very Bad Elf Special Reserve Ale

Review Date 2/25/2007  Last Updated 7/16/2020  By John Staradumsky

If you’ve ever come across a Bad Elf, youknow just how devious they can be. But in the beer world, a Bad Elf is not such a bad thing-actually it’s a darned good beer. And if you happen to come across a Very Bad Elf, a special reserve beer by England’s Ridgeway brewery, well then, your luck just got even better.

Ridgeway’s holiday beers have been very successful indeed, especially in the United States. The controversy over some of their labels depicting Santa Claus and his elves, albeit somewhat unsavory versions thereof, have only helped boost sales.

According to the brewery, Very Bad Elf is made according to an original recipe unique to its area and dating back to 1795. Ridgeway was founded by the brewer of the old Brakspear brewery, and he has taken the recipe for Brakspear’s famous Vintage Henley Ale and kicked it up a notch here.

I was expecting a bit more of a hoppy beer than I got here, perhaps a bigger and bolder version of Bad Elf. But this is a completely different beer indeed, certainly maltier and more complex with yeasty esters. Ridgeway says special hops and a unique and rare pale malt give the beer much of its special character. The label says:

”Is it just my imagination,” queried old Santa, surveying the scene, “or is my elf only getting worse and worse every year?” What’s Next? Seriously Bad Elf, I’ll wager. Mark my words.”

Santa, it seems, was right, but that’s another beer for another day.

Very Bad Elf pours to a bright orange amber color with a very faint, wispy head formation and a light fruity nose. The palate is very interesting here, immediately coating the tongue with a smooth but lighter than expected biscuity malt character. That is followed by a decidedly fruity apple character very reminiscent of hard cider. Candied fruit, butterscotch and spice come to mind too.

The finish is surprisingly light, too, and the 7.5% alcohol content only comes through as a bit of warmth at the very end. A touch of hops are apparent, an herbal aromatic Fuggles character and a gentle minty bitter buzz. There’s a soft sourness in the beer that is more noticeable in the finish, too. I think a bit more body would make this a much better beer. But overall, it’s an interesting, spicy and complex brew, and a very different one from Bad Elf, which I think I like better.

Still a very bad…errr, good, beer that merits four stars for its complexity and wonderful herbal hop character.

Update 7/16/2020: Christmas in July! That's what I'm talking about. I bought a bottle of Very Bad Elf last December, and socked it away for my annual Christmas in July celebration. All of the Ridgeway Christmas ales (or many of them anyway) are sold at Cost Plus World Market, so I make a yearly pilgrimage there each November to get some. The beers have gotten a little more expensive, and Very Bad Elf cost me $6.99 for the 16.9 fluid ounce bottle but it is always worth it. More from the label:

This Very Bad Elf is one fine ale - rich, hardy and flavourful, brewed to an original 1795 Thames Valley recipe, with a very special pale amber malt that is rarely used nowadays, and balanced by a modest addition of English Fuggle aroma hops. 'Ere's to your elf!

The importer, Shelton Brothers, says the beer is based on an original recipe from 1795. My bottle in the midst of July pours to a pale orange color with a thick creamy head and a rich candied citrus peel nose. Taking a sip, the beer is big and malty with gentle toasty malt notes, bread crusts, hints of citrus and a warming alcohol and bitter hop finish. It's flinty in the body with a hint of hop aroma throughout. It might even be more tasty in July than in December. Why not pick up a bottle for each of those months and see for yourself?

And remember, try a new beer today, and drink outside the box.

*Pricing data accurate at time of review or latest update. For reference only, based on actual price paid by reviewer.