Sud Savant: Ridgeway – Bad Elf vs. Very Bad Elf

I see these beers nearly everywhere I go and could only go so long without trying them out. Instead of drinking them one-by-one, I figure why not put them head to head and see how different they really are. Bad Elf takes on Very Bad Elf in a slugfest of miniature proportions (they are Elves after all). Let’s pour!

First up Bad Elf

Aroma 9/12: My first sensation was that of tart apples and white grapes – the type of grapes one finds in a bottle of sparkling grape juice. Citrus hops are not far behind and provide a hint of herbs and a stronger, syrupy apricot scent. The alcohol warmth can be detected on the back of the throat with a deep inhale and the malts finally show up toward the end. There is a little hay aroma and a molasses sweetness that blends with the other scents so well it’s hard to detect. This is fairly perfume-like, for better or worse, and the ingredients all come together very well. If you like esters, you’re in luck, especially since as the beer warms it takes on more honey and floral characteristics from the hops.

Appearance 2/3: The head was stark white and fairly small considering that I all but threw the beer into the tulip. It lasts a while and does leave some nice lacing. It’s an extremely high clarity golden shade that includes some amber tones as well. There are no bubbles rising to the surface, which is surprising considering how aromatic this beer is.

Flavor 17/20: I’m not sure why this is called a “Winter’s Ale” as there are no discernible characteristics that would make it so. The initial flavors are a rather plain crystal malt, honey, and a very nice apricot note from the aroma. The backbone is eased into and provides a steady continuation of the apricot, but adds grapefruit, more honey, a “just right” bitter that doesn’t detract from the sweetness, and a sweet cream. The finish is crisp apples, a hint of the white grapes, more of the cream, and a bitter note that comes from nothing, but grows to a more than moderate strength. This seems less like a winter seasonal and more like a floral, dry-hopped IPA.

Mouthfeel 4/5: Nothing wrong here. Seems a bit more full-bodied than one would expect given the body and lighter flavors. Its body is medium, and the carbonation seems low for its lighter hue and flavors. A slightly more aggressive carbonation would compliment these refreshing fruits and floral tones quite nicely. It’s going for a big beer feel with its lower carbonation, higher ABV, and medium body, but the ingredients all seem a little too delicate for such an undertaking.

Overall Impression 7/10: Not a bad beer by any means. It definitely will appeal to drinkers of Heineken and those who are teetering on drinking something a little closer to the craft beer world. It smells great, has some sweeter flavors, and a very nice bitter. I’m not sure what this sold for originally, but I picked it up on clearance for $3.00 and I think that price is about right. It attempts to bridge the worlds of a big beer with one that is sweet and drinkable.

Total 39/50: Upon some investigating, the “propaganda” section on the bottle declares this a Golden Ale. While I can definitely say that it misses the mark on that style, Golden ales being one of my favorite styles, it is far from a bad beer or a run-of-the-mill winter/Christmas seasonal. It seems to me more like a very floral IPA. The apple flesh flavor, variety of aromas, and very nice bitter are all evident of the “three pounds of fresh hops” that allegedly “goes into every barrel.” If you haven’t tried this, it’s worth a shot. It’s definitely worth gifting to that friend who is trying to get into craft beers… if he/she can handle the bitter aftertaste, that is.

and now for… Very Bad Elf

Aroma 11/12: Ooo… lots of rich molasses and roasted malts right out of the gate. Then the same apple and white grapes peek their way in, while showing a more present alcohol warmth than in Bad Elf. This is a very similar tone to the first beer, but with more sugary molasses goodness and definitely more roast that balances out a diminished floral character.

Appearance 1/3: There is no head at all. I even dumped this beer in the glass knowing that the first one also didn’t have the strongest propensity for foaming. Nada. No head also equals no lacing. The color is what one should expect from a good amber malt: deep copper tones, siennas, and hints of ruby. Very nice color, but that’s about it.

Flavor 17/20: This beer also starts with crystal malts, but this is much more creamy and savory. The backbone keeps this creaminess and throws on top of it a rich, roasted amber malt, a mellow bitter, and a sweetness that I can only associate with the sweetness of a good brandy – without the warmth of course. Not to say this is completely without warmth. Slurping brings that warmth to the forefront and really helps accentuate the sweet apples notes. The finish is a crisp, citrusy bitter and when combined with the higer ABV (7.5%) leaves the mouth a bit drier than Bad Elf. The molasses and the apple’s starring roles paint a very “caramel apple” theme to this beer. A nice bitter aftertaste seems to evolve from the molasses sweetness and is a great memento.

Mouthfeel 4/5: Oddly the carbonation is greater here than in the lower ABV beer, both in amount and its presence. Nothing distracting, mind you, but it seems much more appropriate than the Bad Elf. It keeps the beer refreshing, compliments the beers “heavier” elements (ABV, molasses driven body) while respecting the “lighter” aspects (hue, citrus notes). Warmth is difficult to detect, but is best seen after the beer is first swallowed.

Overall Impression 7/10: Despite it being the more “serious” or “hardcore” of the two offerings, this beer might actually appeal more to non craft beer drinkers than the first. It’s sweeter, smoother, and relaxes the bitter aftertaste. The smell won’t entice them as much, but its caramel apple nature and higher ABV should definitely make it a hit any holiday gathering.

Total 40/50: This rating feels a tad generous, but that doesn’t make it a bad beer. It’s sweet, takes a chance on a flavor profile, and gives me a nice ABV with which to get warm. I’d say it’s a sweet beer with a lighter bitter that is tasty, but probably not worth the $5-7 it cost to originally procure it. Wait til it goes on sale or give it to anyone trying to get into craft beer. You won’t have to worry about the bitter nature like in Bad Elf and I guarantee it’ll be appreciated.

P.S. Love the contrasting bottle caps.

and the winner is……
Very Bad Elf by a nose! Yes, I know the pictures depict them with very large noses, but the race was close none-the-less. It’s less “in your face” than the Bad Elf and provides a greater harmony of ingredients instead of contrasting them. In case, you didn’t notice I spent most of the beers’ summaries recommending them as “gateway beers” for non-craft beer drinkers. I stand by this. Most non-craft beer drinkers will enjoy this. Heck, even seasoned craft beer drinkers will not be taken aback by drinking this beer, but for their price a veteran craft beer drinker will probably be better off spending the money on something a bit more substantial. They’re tasty, sure and they’re mostly well made. But for the price it seems like more of a marketing gimmick than anything else, especially since the beers don’t seem to evoke a winter/Christmas seasonal in any way other then their labeling. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a seasonal that attempts a new variation on the theme, but to just make a beer and declare it a “winter ale,” smacks a bit too close to the marketing gimmicks of a macrobrewery to me. That aside, either one is worth a try if you see it in a pub this time of year and you’re feeling festive. If you insist on bottles, I would wait on them to come down in price.

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!