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.

American Craft Beer Classic: Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils

Trying something new here at the Tap Takeover. For all the new beers I’ve been reviewing, I figured it would be worth featuring the occasional classic…an American Craft Beer Classic. 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. I’ve seen a handful of other beer websites do something similar and I’ve been thinking of doing the same for the past few months. These posts will be less of a review of the beer and more of an homage to the beer. Since Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania is one of my 3 or 4 favorite breweries, based on the whole of their portfolio, I’ll start with what is arguably their flagship beer.

Victory Brewing Company in Downington, PA is one of the “old guard” of American Craft brewing, launching in 1996, just after I became of legal age to drink. Prima Pils is one of probably 3 beers that helped to establish Victory as a premier craft brewery in the Northeast. The other two being Golden Monkey and Hop Devil. When Bill and Ron started Victory, they wanted to bring some old world styles to beer drinkers, but with the flavor that mass-produced beer seemed to be lacking. At the time, Pilsners were popular, but not exactly flavorful. When Prima Pils came out of the tanks, things were about to change for beer drinkers seeking a more flavorful easy drinking beer and Victory Brewing.

Let’s get the stats out of the way: the beer clocks in with an ABV of 5.3% and an IBU of 44. These are both maybe just slightly above average for an American Pilsner, but still makes for a fairly crushable beer. Here’s what Victory has to “officially” say about Prima Pils on their page dedicated to the beer:

Prima! It’s a German exclamation of joy. It’s a recognition of accomplishment. It’s what escaped from our lips the first time we sampled this mighty pilsner recipe. With heaps of whole flower European hops and fine German malts, we achieved the bracing herbal bite and smooth malt flavor that we sought. Prima… an exclamation of Victory! Prost!

A perfectly poured Prima Pils in a Pilsner Glass

I’ve had Prima Pils in cans and bottles, but not on draft yet. Most recently, I had the beer from a can. Out of the can, the beer pours a lovely light, clear yellow and when poured properly into a Pilsner glass, emits a perfect, frothy head. A slight hop aroma wafted towards me as I poured the beer. Once the glass is full, very little appears to hint at the elegant flavors. But elegant this beer is. The hops and malt play together so well, they are both fairly complex flavors that can take nuance for brewers to master, but straightforward in what the hops and malt do for the profile of the beer. Throughout the whole 12 oz, there’s a floral sweetness playing against a pleasing hop bitterness, all held together by that potent pilsner malt backbone. Elegance. Or as Victory would say, Pilsner Perfection.

From one of my untappd check ins in April 2016, the old pre-2016 label on the bottle.

There’s a wonderful balance between the classic European hops and Pilsner malt in this beer, a bright beer with a nice crisp hop bite that is extremely pleasing to the palate. At least *my* palate. American palates tend to go for more hop forward beers than most pilsners and this fine pilsner is indeed a slightly more hop-heavy than most pilsners. Not surprising considering that Hop Devil – an extremely hop forward beer – is one of the other tripods of Victory’s foundational beers.

Prima Pils underwent a logo/label change in 2016, and at the time, Victory did something even smarter with the beer. They started canning Prima Pils, which makes for easier fit in coolers and just all around an easier beer to bring places in 12packs. Let’s face it, cans don’t have the negative connotations associated with them like they once did and this beer just belongs in a can.

From what I’ve read and gathered, the recipe has largely remained the same for the 20+ years Victory has been brewing and selling the beer. Why should they change it? The beer sells extremely well for them and is an iconic beer in the American Craft Beer landscape.

I’m not the only person who heaps praise on the beer.

Since this is one of their flagship beers, Prima Pils is one of the easier beers to find from Victory. Most stores near me have Prima Pils bottles and Victory puts the beer in most of the variety packs it sells, including the the Variety 12 Pack and the massive Kick Back Can Pack – 5 beers, 3 of each. The other beers in the Kick Back Can Pack are Sour Monkey, Home Grown Lager, and unsurprisingly, Golden Monkey and Hop Devil. The Variety 12 pack contains 3 each of Prima Pils, Golden Monkey, Hop Devil, and Vital IPA.

Few beers are as perfect for convincing folks who drink primarily the macro produced lagers/pilsner and who are wary of craft beer to try something better, more complex. In the glass, Prima Pils may look similar to the beers out of Milwaukee and St. Louis, but the taste and complexity is far superior. With Victory Beer distributed fairly widely in 37 states, Prima Pils is one of the more widely available Craft Pilsners in the market.

So, when you want a beer that flavorful, easy-going, fairly readily available, and that will compliment most meals, you could do much worse than to reach for the Pilsner Perfection of Prima Pils.