American Craft Beer Classic: Anchor Brewing’s Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

For all the new beers it is fun to try, going back to the classics, American “Craft Beer” Classics if you will, can also be fun. These are beers many folks have probably had, beers that are fairly widely available, and beers that have been in the market for upwards of ten to fifteen years. In other words, beers that have had a significant impact on the American Craft Beer landscape.

Christmastime…although there are more than enough Christmas and Winter specific beers available you could likely go a few years with trying something new every Christmas, the classics are great options too. No beer is more classic with regard to Christmas in America than Anchor’s Our Special Ale / Merry Christmas & Happy New Year beer. This really shouldn’t be a surprise considering Anchor Brewing helped to ignite the “craft beer” and/or “microbrewing” movement over 50 years ago.

Even Santa Claus stands at attention for an iconic beer.

2018 marks the 44th year Anchor has brewed their Christmas beer, having first brewed a version of this beer in 1975. I say “A” version because every year the recipe is slightly different as is the label. Each year a different tree adorns the label and the beer has different tasting notes. I’ve had each vintage for four years in a row according to my untappd check-ins and I know I had a few versions of the beer before joining untappd. In other words, I’ve been having a version of this beer for many years.

Image courtesy of Anchor’s Facebook page

Here’s what Anchor has to say about the 2018 version of Merry Christmas & Happy New Year:

Our annual Christmas Ale is a subtly spiced and sumptuously smooth winter warmer. This year’s brew marks the 44th annual release of this Anchor holiday tradition.

Back in 1975, Anchor released the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition. Year after year, Anchor creates a new, secret recipe with a unique hand drawn label for their Christmas Ale, but the intent with each brew remains the same: joy for the changing seasons and celebration of the newness of life. With a heavily guarded, confidential recipe, Christmas Ale is sold only from early November to mid-January. This highly anticipated seasonal delight is complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and strong aromas of resinous pine.

Our 2018 Christmas Ale has varying specialty malts, lending rich flavors of brûléed sugars, holiday spices and freshly baked banana bread with a velvety finish. The aromatics are quintessential for the holiday season: nutty candied yams and resinous pine. It pours a nice mahogany brown color with a fluffy, tan head.

As each Christmas Ale recipe evolves, so does its hand drawn packaging, created by long-time Anchor Illustrator Jim Stitt, who has been creating Anchor’s Christmas Ale labels since 1975. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. For the 2018 release, Stitt created a brimming Korean Pine Tree for the label. Native to both North and South Korea, the Korean Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and a reminder of the spirit of the season. It flourishes in the picturesque botanical gardens just north of San Francisco, Anchor’s home base.

A few years back, Anchor Brewing put together this video about their iconic Christmas Beer:

I found this year’s version to be good, but a little thinner than previous years. There was a nice amount of spice throughout the beer, and sweeter finish than I’ve come to expect. For me, the biggest difference was in the color – the beer poured closer to an amber ale whereas I recall the beer in the past being darker, bordering on stout territory. I think the version I enjoyed the most was the 2016 version, the malt, spice, and sweet elements I thought came together almost perfectly and the beer was darker than this year’s. I think when the recipe leans more on the darker roasted malts that produce a beer that is almost knocking on the door of a stout, it works better for me. Not that a beer like this *should* have full stout characteristics at all, but it is almost stout-adjacent in looks.

One thing some people do with this beer is set one or two aside to age and have 3 or 4 years in a row for a gathering or vertical tasting. That’s more common with barrel-aged stouts, but since the recipe for this one changes annually, it would be interesting to see how the beer ages.

The darker 2016 version of the beer, my favorite from the past few years.

My opinions aside, take a look at the beer landscape, especially this time of year. I mean, aside from the continual glut of various sub-styles of IPA, the many stouts, and leftover pumpkin beers on shelves from mid-November through the remainder of the calendar year. Winter Warmers and Christmas Beers are displayed prominently in bottle shops. Bars and breweries have Christmas/Holiday focused pourings/events. The Winter Warmer and Christmas Beer are slightly different if you ask some people, such as the great beer writer Jeff Alworth who examines the styles over at his must-read Beervana blog. The differences can be negligible and subtle in some cases, in others like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale a highly hopped IPA, the difference can be obvious between “Christmas beer” and Winter Warmer.

Beers like Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale (a slightly heavier beer and iconic in its own right), Abita’s Christmas Ale, Breckenridge’s Christmas Ale, Souther Tier’s 2XMAS, Schalfly’s Christmas Ale, and Samuel Adams’s Old Fezziwig (which unfortunately is STILL only available in a variety pack), are just a few of the more well-known Christmas-themed beers. I’m not necessarily saying there wouldn’t be Christmas Beers (specifically those leaning on the Winter Warmer variety) without Anchor’s first “Our Special Ale” back in 1975, but the Christmas beer landscape might look a little differently than it looks today.

The 2017 vintage. Though poorly lit, the beer poured darker last year, too.

The recipe isn’t the only thing that changes every year. As I noted above, for each new iteration of the beer, a new label is commissioned featuring a different tree, different font, and a slightly different look. The label always looks like an Anchor Christmas beer on the whole, but the specifics do change. On their Web store (steamgear.com), Anchor sells a poster every year which features all the different labels they’ve produced for the beers over the years.

Although Anchor Brewing has been in some form of operation under that name since 1896, it suffered some difficulties from Prohibition until about 1965 when Fritz Maytag III (yes, he’s part of THAT family) purchased a 51% stake in the company and reinvigorated the brand. That re invigoration is what helped to start the craft beer movement in California, specifically. Given their history, and the iconic beers they’ve produced over the years (Porter and Steam, for example), it seems only logical that Anchor brews arguably the most iconic Christmas/Holiday beer and that “Our Special Ale” has achieved, classic iconic beer status. For me, this beer is always a must have during the holidays. It should be a tradition for you, too.

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