Everything I cherish about beer started with my dad’s love of the growing American craft beer world of the 1990s and early 2000s. And there are few memories more vivid than his excitement for the annual release of Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale.
Beer may be a centuries-old human concoction but Americans don’t have many beer traditions that go back more than a decade (thanks for that, Prohibition). Anchor Steam’s Christmas Ale is an exception. This year, the holiday brew celebrates its 45th year with an entirely new (and secret) recipe and a fresh label. Awaiting to see the new beer and honored tree are as celebrated of a tradition in American craft beer that we have.
The very first Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale was released in 1975. But it wasn’t a version of the spiced brown ale we’ve all come to know and love. Instead, that original Our Special Ale (the Christmas Ale’s official name) was a twist on Anchor’s Liberty Ale — a beer that also made its debut in 1975. This tandem annual release was the norm for Anchor until 1982 when the brewery decided to bottle the recipe as Liberty Ale. The decision was then made to pivot Christmas Ale to a brown ale. The annual tribute to the holidays was tweaked again in 1987 to become a spiced brown ale and it’s been that style ever since (it doesn’t hurt that a spiced brown ale fits perfectly with the season).
“Every year, a few of us in the brewing department sit down in March to discuss the beer for this year,” Anchor brewmaster Scott Ungermann says. “We always start with last year’s brew — we taste it and talk about it. What did we like? What do we want to keep in there, what do want to expand on? What do we want to leave out?”
The Christmas Ale team seeks out new ingredients to begin brewing test batches in April on a 10-gallon mini-pilot system that allows them to add and remove ingredients to see how things start to go together. The recipe is finalized by May.
“The first brew in the large brewhouse is always in late July,” Ungermann says, “but this year we actually brewed a pilot brew on our seven-barrel system at Public Taps in late June so that it would be ready for Xmas in July.”
The first Christmas I came of drinking age my dad got a magnum of the stuff. We took guesses at what ingredients made it in that year’s recipe. As Ungermann says about the secrecy of each year’s recipe, “The brewers, QA and cellar folks know the recipe but [it] is really only known by a precious few.”
I look forward to guessing the recipe every year now — even when I lived across the country and couldn’t make it home for the holidays, we would chat about it over the phone while drinking it separately.
Also wrapped in our Christmas-time tradition is studying the unique label artwork (my dad is a self-professed arboriculturist) that pays tribute to a different species of tree each year. Amazingly, these labels (and nearly all of Anchor’s labels) are still hand-drawn by artist and friend of the brewery Jim Stitt, who is now 92 years old.
This year’s tree celebrated on the label is the Western Arborvitae. As we head into a new decade, Anchor explains this decision as thus: “Before modern medicine, properties of Western Arborvitae leaves were believed to have healing properties — hence, the moniker ‘tree of life.’ 2019 Anchor Christmas Ale proudly wears this tree and symbolizes the start of a strong, healthy beginning.”
That sentiment has guided the Christmas Ale recipe over these last four-and-a-half decades. And 2019’s version, sitting at 6.9 percent ABV, certainly lives up to the billing with complex notes of toasted cocoa, caramel and a hint of coffee. This is rounded out with a subtle backend spiciness that lends itself to a smooth, silky finish.
Assistant brewmaster Tom Riley has been at Anchor Brewing for 35 years and sums up what Christmas Ale means to beer drinkers: “I look forward to everyone getting a chance to try the new beer each year — it is like opening a present that you know will be delicious and will never be the same.”