• Dining

Their Special Ale

Anchor Brewing’s annual Christmas offering is the gift that keeps on giving


December 14, 2017
By Jeff Gredlein | The Beer Snob

With the first week of winter a week away, it seems only appropriate to talk about the style of beer obviously meant for this time of year, winter warmer. Generally an English holiday ale, classic winter warmers of the early 1900s were malty, robust, lightly hopped, and slightly stronger than your average mild or brown ale, using a brewer’s finest ingredients.

Of course, if you go even farther back, in the days before the use (or at least the mega dose) of hops, many ‘winter ales’ were warmed and spiced, some of these drinks even being topped with cinnamon or ginger.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that this spicing of rich, cold weather beer was revived in the United States and in the UK. In Belgium, brewers had been spicing holiday beers for years, but there seems to be some confusion between the unspiced winter warmer and the flavored Christmas ale. No mind, the spice trend has come full circle, and, spiced or not, these beers are a winter treat.

First brewed in 1975 Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas ale is the American legend of winter warmers. This holiday brew offers a different, even if only slightly modified, recipe every year for the past 39 installments. The ingredients are a well-kept secret, and the ever-changing line-up helps keep mystery and suspense around the beer, year after year.

Almost as interesting as the evolving flavor of the beer is the bottle label, depicting a different tree every holiday, hand-painted in green, with red writing and a cream colored background. This tradition the brewery says stands for “joy and celebration of the newness of life.” This year’s tree is the extremely rate Santa Lucia fir, found along the central coast of California.

So, why is Anchor’s Christmas Ale so special? Unlike many winter warmers or spiced beers that go for the Christmas cookie angle, this beer is not all syrup and sugar. Flavor and aroma-wise, Our Special Ale is similar to the holidays. Its earthy tree and fruit nature sits perfectly among the season’s senses.

Right out of the stubby little bottle, this beer is a beauty, dark and sexy, almost black with brunette orange highlights. The immense head is dark brown, foamy, and does not want to leave. This is great, because the froth emits the most amazing scents – reminiscent of a collage of holiday smells, like food baked with cinnamon and ginger, evergreen tree, possibly rum or brandy with malty chocolate lying beneath. This is only the beginning.

The taste is where this beer rises above all others, and attests to why Anchor is the yardstick for all American winter warmers. A sharp herbal malt rush greets the mouth, and for a split second, it seems strange and out of place; this isn’t beer, it’s a Christmas tree in a bottle. Quickly your taste buds adjust, and bliss washes over with every following sip. A woodsy hop aftertaste is noticeable, but only adds to the magnificence. After the initial flavors, others take their turn, as moist cinnamon and ginger spice cake dance alongside milk chocolate, balanced by either spruce or pine notes. Maybe its molasses with a touch of clove, or orange rind, or it could even be some sort of tree bark? I feel sure cardamom makes an appearance. The tastes mingle, and are tough to pin down, but do not worry with it, just take pleasure in the experience.

For some strange reason, given its modest 5.5 percent alcohol by volume level, the ingredients of the brew make for a great cellaring beer. The ale begs to be kept in a cool, dark place for one or many years. Nuances of the flavors and smells diversify and blend, creating amazing results, different from the fresh version, interesting and unique with every passing winter. Comparisons between past years can be a real delight. Enjoy the brews … Cheers.

Gene’s Haufbrau has at more than 200 in bottles or on tap. While they don’t have every beer the Beer Snob writes about, they probably  have most. E-mail the Beer Snob at publisher@westof.net.


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