Anchor Christmas Ale Day 2010

Time was when today, the Monday before Thanksgiving, was the traditional day on which Anchor’s Our Special Ale — a.k.a. their Christmas Ale — was released each year. Every year since 1975 the brewers at Anchor Brewery have brewed a distinctive and unique Christmas Ale, which is now available from early November to mid-January.


From Anchor’s website:

The Ale’s recipe is different every year—as is the tree on the label—but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew.

Until recently, Anchor’s Christmas Ale was not released until the Monday before Thanksgiving each year. A few years ago they bowed to pressure from their distributors, who wanted to have it earlier to compete against all of the other holiday beers that are released much earlier. So while I can’t argue it’s a bad thing to have this wonderful beer both earlier and for a longer period of time each year, I do actually miss it coming later on a very specific date. There was something I really liked about having to wait for it — admittedly vague and unspecific, but the feeling was there all the same. And there was something I admired about their stubbornly refusing to release it until they were damn well ready. I think it added something intangible to the beer’s mystique, making it more special somehow.

I realize I sound like a sentimental fool, but beer (and many other things) used to be ruled by the seasons and their availability was something that created anticipation and deep satisfactions, too. To me fruit is a great example. Wait, hear me out. There was a time when you couldn’t get almost every fruit year round, but now thanks to agreements with growers in the Southern Hemisphere, we can get most of them all year long. But the very fact that they’re around all the time makes them less desirable. How much better did a strawberry taste when you couldn’t eat one all winter and they suddenly appeared each spring?

Of course, I don’t really think Anchor’s Christmas Ale will lose much — or any — of its specialness by being released a couple weeks sooner each year. I know I still wait eagerly to try the new one each year. But I really think there is something to building up demand and the perceived value that artificial scarcity brings. And there are beers that have suffered for going from a seasonal to a year-round beer. Mendocino’s Eye of the Hawk comes to mind. Back in the early 1980s they only brewed it three times a year (for the 4th of July, their annual anniversary and Oktoberfest). They released the strong ale in 22 oz. bottles in limited quantities and it sold out quickly like clockwork every time it was released. That went on for years until around 1999, when they made it available all the time and in unlimited quantities. Sales fell and although it sold steadily, we sold more in three bursts than when it was always there. Let’s also not forget that seasonals are now the number one craft category at mainstream outlets like grocery and liquor stores. It’s clear people like picking up something different. I don’t think we’ll see popular everyday beers going away, but it should be remembered that limited and seasonal releases can have their own cache and sell better in direct proportion to the difficulty in obtaining them.

Today I’m celebrating “Anchor Christmas Ale Day” and picking up some more today, I’ll drink some tonight, and also save some for my Thanksgiving Day meal on Thursday. This holiday will continue to be the Monday before Thanksgiving, to honor the idea that some things are worth waiting for.

But back to Anchor’s “Our Special Ale.”

Each year our Christmas Ale gets a unique label and a unique recipe for the Ale itself. Although our recipes must remain a secret, many enthusiasts save a few bottles from year to year—stored in a cool dark place—to taste later and compare with other vintages. Properly refrigerated, the beer remains intriguing and drinkable for years, with different nuances slowly emerging as the flavor mellows slightly.


This year’s label has one more unique feature that makes it different from the 35 that preceded it. Take a good look at the label, you probably won’t notice it. I didn’t. Every other label included the Latin name for the tree. But this year’s tree was the Ginkgo biloba tree and our intrepid TTB would not allow the words “Ginkgo biloba” to appear on the label for fear that someone might think the beer contained the drug Ginkgo biloba, despite the fact that for the last 35 years having the Latin name has never been a problem. You’d think there might have been some precedent set, but alas, no. I’m told Anchor considered appealing the decision and fighting it, but in the end decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But it certainly feels like a bureaucratic snafu that serves no legitimate purpose. Oh, well.

Over the years, there have been 36 different labels and each year Anchor prints a beautiful poster with all of the past labels plus the current years’ label.


Note: If this sounded familiar, I posted this same rant a couple of years ago, but decided it should be an annual thing.

Session #31: Summer Beers

As this month marks the end of summer, our last summer Session takes on summer beers, courtesy of Peter Estaniel of the BeerBeerBlog. His take:

With the summer coming to a close, what was your favorite beer of the summer? It doesn’t even have to be from this summer. Is it a lager or maybe a light bodied wheat ale? Maybe you’re drinking anti-seasonally and are having a barleywine or Russian Imperial Stout. Why is this beer your favorite? Is there a particular memory associated with this beer? How about a city? Maybe there was a particular dish that made this beer memorable? Spare no detail.

For me, the most memorable summer drinking I did was in London, where I spent a week with fellow beer writer Stephen Beaumont visiting pubs, attending the Great British Beer Festival and endless (and vainly) searching for late night food. While by no means sweltering heat, London was, as always, more moist than the average California summer. They’d just come off a heatwave during the weeks before we arrived, and welcomed some rain. But it was certainly warm enough, staying in the narrow range of mid-70s to high 80s, even late into the evening.


We walked around a fair bit of London, taking the tube whenever possible, but also sometimes we just wanted to be above ground, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. To be fair, there was another reason waking was more attractive at times. Besides even the mild summer weather, below ground it could be stiflingly hot, especially when we were sandwiched into the trains during busier times of the day, sweat pouring off of us.

To compensate ourselves, we’d often duck into a pub just for a quick pint, even though we were on our way to another pub, and one which quite possibly was only be fifteen minutes or so away. But thirst must be obeyed, and by god we were often thirsty. And there’s really nothing quite like a English ale on cask, the way nature intended, to quench one’s thirst. Not too cold, which would undoubtedly be a shock to the system, fairly low in alcohol (especially as compared with American beers), which meant we could enjoy more of them, and tasty as all get out. My favorite aspect of cask beer is just how much more flavor can be perceived; more complexity and, perhaps most importantly, more delicate characters. What more could you ask for in a summer beer?

Beaumont at the Dove
Stephen Beaumont at The Dove, a Fuller’s pub along the Thames near Hammersmith where we rested and recharged with a pint.

Even when most of the beers we enjoyed weren’t summer seasonals, but everyday offerings, they were ideally suited to the climate and the warm August weather. And they slaked our thirst almost perfectly.

Next Session Takes On Summer Beers

Peter Estanial, of the Better Beer Blog, has announced the topic for September’s Session: Summer Beers.

With the summer coming to a close, what was your favorite beer of the summer? It doesn’t even have to be from this summer. Is it a lager or maybe a light bodied wheat ale? Maybe you’re drinking anti-seasonally and are having a barleywine or Russian Imperial Stout. Why is this beer your favorite? Is there a particular memory associated with this beer? How about a city? Maybe there was a particular dish that made this beer memorable? Spare no detail.

Get drinking, summer’s a’wasting.

Highway To Helles: Strong Beer Month Returns

Beginning on February 1, 21st Amendment Brewery and Magnolia Pub & Brewery, both in San Francisco, will team up yet again to host their sixth annual Strong Beer Month. Each brewpub will create six different seasonal beers — and if you haven’t figured it out yet, they’ll all be strong — that will be available at the two locations throughout February. Many of these dozen beers have been created especially for this month, and will be available only until they run out. Sample them all, and you’ll receive a commemorative glass.



And this year’s poster is hilarious, a near perfect parody of AC/DC’s album cover for Highway to Hell. Compare it to the original below.



Full Sail Re-Boots LTD Series

Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Oregon will be re-launching their seasonal LTD series that they debuted in 2007. Though curiously, they’re starting over again with Recipe 01, so perhaps re-booting might be more accurate.

From the press release:

Full Sail proudly announces the return of its lager seasonal program — the LTD series. Our first offering is a wonderfully balanced medium, copper colored lager with subtle hop accents, and a caramel aroma, that goes down smooth – perfect for the winter season. Since its release last year LTD has been embraced by both the critics and consumers alike winning a gold medal in the World Beer Championship and becoming one of the fastest growing new beers in the U.S. (I.R.I 12/02/07) “We are excited to be able to branch out and brew some interesting lager beers as they are such a huge part of brewing tradition. It is one of the best parts about being an independent, employee owned company – we get to celebrate our creativity as well as the rich heritage of beer styles,” said Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson. “It is such a pleasure to brew these beers and have them develop such a fervent following — it is why I love my job!”

LTD Recipe 01 will be available in six-packs and in draught and will begin shipping from the brewery again in January 2008. The bottle labels describe LTD Recipe 01, as an easy drinking, nonetheless way tasty limited edition lager. Featured on the six-pack is a “Malt-O-Meter” that will tell you at a glance that LTD is a medium body, perfectly balanced malty beer with a lovely hop aroma and caramel notes. For the beer aficionados, or the aspiring ones, the bottom of the six-pack features an easy to read chart of “Today’s Recipe”, including hop (Czech Saaz, Hallertauer) and malt varieties (caramel, chocolate and wheat), Plato (16 degrees), I.B.U. (26), alcohol by volume (6.4) and even secret sauce! Full Sail will follow up with a limited edition bottling of LTD Recipe 02, this spring.

Session #10: Winter Beers

This month’s Session, sponsored by Barley Vine, is Let It Snow: Winter Beers. Of all the seasonal beers, the ones released during winter are my favorites; the ones I look most forward to sampling each and every year. The category of winter beers lacks the tradition of, say for example, oktoberfest beers or springfest beers, both of which owe their existence to the seasons, a lack of technology and brewers having to adapt themselves to the weather. And, of course, even calling them winter beers is a modern conceit to be politically correct and, perhaps more importantly, to try to insure they will continue to sell beyond December 25. Because for the most part, whether we say so or not, most of the “winter beers” are really Christmas beers. And they are, like Christmas itself, largely a modern invention.

For centuries, the most important Christian holiday was Easter, because — as I remember it being explained — the redemption and resurrection it represented was the miracle that made Christianity different from other religions and so it was the centerpiece of an ecumenical year filled with celebrations Sunday after Sunday. Our present calendar system, the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory) was created precisely to more accurately predict the date when each year’s Easter would be because under the prior system, the Julian calendar (which is still used today by some Christian denominations) had allowed the year to drift by several days because it did not accurately reflect the true length of a year. (For a riveting account of the history of our calendar, read David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar: Humanity’s Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.) The calendar geek in me could go on and on about this but the point is simply that for the majority of Christian history, Easter was the big day. Beginning in the 1840s, things gradually shifted toward Christmas so that now most people would say Christmas is the number one holiday.

The first Christmas beers were most likely brewed in medieval times by monks making a special beer — and stronger — at Christmastime to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But it would take far longer for commercial breweries to begin making and bottling seasonal beer. And while there were breweries in decades past that made a holiday beer (I have, for example a full bottle of Ballantine Christmas Ale that was brewed in 1946 but not bottled until 1957), it was not the big business it is today. In my experience, here in the U.S. Christmas beers were more the exception than the rule until somewhat recently.

Germany has a rich tradition of Weihnachtsbier, as do several other Scandinavian countries. So does Great Britain with winter warmers and Belgium with beers like Delirium Noel and many others. My friend and colleague Don Russell (a.k.a. Joe Sixpack) is currently working on a book about Christmas beer which will be published next year. I can’t wait for it to come out, it should be a very interesting read.

For a time, there were only a few holiday beers, and most of them were quite obviously Christmas beers. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, Samuel Adams’ Winter Lager and even Noche Buena (from Mexico’s Grupo Model) were all early favorites. Little by little, more breweries began making a holiday beer and by around 1996 practically every brewery made one and a large number bottled it, too. And they all sold pretty well. But oddly enough, the day after Christmas sales would abruptly stop. With the exception of the most popular two or three brands, you could barely give away a Christmas beer once the holiday was over. This made it tricky for retailers trying to balance not running out before Christmas but not wanting any inventory immediately thereafter. When I was a beer buyer, I can’t tell you how many offers at rock bottom bargain prices I would get in the weeks after Christmas by breweries trying to unload their remaining Christmas beer.

So what most breweries did was secularize the beers, calling them names like winter ale or holiday beer. Whatever the name, it de-emphasized Christmas in the hope that the fickle consumer would continue to buy them after December 25. And for the most part the strategy worked and eventually led to many breweries having a seasonal beer year-round, whether four different ones quarterly or more often. The reason for this is more business-related than you might assume at first blush. Most grocery stores have very specific beer sets (which is a schematic layout of what beers they carry and where they will be put on the shelves).

Breweries work very hard to get a slot on a grocery store’s beer set. No one wants to put in the effort to get their Christmas beer in the beer set over the holidays only to lose it as soon December ends. So what many did was get a seasonal sku authorized in the set that would be filled with whatever the seasonal beer happened to be. In other words, the same hole would be filled in summer with a summer seasonal beer, etc. throughout the year. One seasonal release would follow the last so that all year long there would be a rotating beer in that same slot on the store shelf. In that way the brewery would not lose it’s spot on the shelf and as a result, today we all have much more diversity on the shelf, a boon for consumers and breweries alike. Nielsen and IRI data confirms that the category “seasonal beer” is one of the fastest growing and best-selling categories of craft beer today. And this all grew out of Christmas beers and trying to figure out how best to sell them.

In modern times, one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is Anchor’s Christmas Beer. Technically, the name of this beer is not Christmas Ale as it is usually called but it’s more proper name is actually Our Special Ale. The first one was brewed in 1975. While there are certainly many other truly great holiday beers, this is always the one I look most forward to each year. It used to be released the Monday before Thanksgiving each year, making it one of the last Christmas beers to come out. A few years ago they bowed to market pressure and it’s now available in early November, usually the first week. I can’t say I don’t like getting it earlier now, but there was something grand about having to wait for it that built up your anticipation and made it somehow more special.

To me, there are two (or three) other factors to this beer that make it so great. First, they change the recipe each year. So not only is there anticipation about its release generally, but also about what it will taste like this year. How much time have I spent sitting around with friends trying to figure out just what spices are in each year’s version? I know there a lot of people, including many beer enthusiasts and the entire nation of Germany, who don’t like spice in their beer. I am not one of those people. I love spicy beers. Not every day, of course, but the more different types of beer loose in the world, the better off we are. The more choices, the better we can experiment and decide what works best when and with what. And there are times when spices in beer work perfectly. I usually pair my Thanksgiving meal with Anchor Christmas, for example, because the spices work so well with turkey’s modest flavors, making both taste better. In addition, the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing all benefit from being lubricated with a spicy beer.

Second, they change the label each year. Each year it’s a new mini-work of art featuring a different tree (which I confess I’ve always had a thing for: trees, that is). They’re beautiful labels and each year they create a new poster featuring all of the labels from 1975 up to the current year. I have one from a couple of years ago framed and hanging in my kitchen. You can see this year’s poster at Anchor’s website and you can even buy one in their gift shop. That also adds to the anticipation, finding out what tree will be featured on each year’s incarnation. They also do a kick-ass neon sign. But there’s one more thing about this beer that I love. It can be aged.

Despite it’s modest strength and most likely due to the spicing, Anchor’s Christmas Ale can be laid down, usually for almost ten years and still be drinkable. For a time during the late 1990s, when the beer was more heavily spiced, it actually seemed to taste better after being aged for at least a year and I would lay down quite a bit of it to take advantage of that phenomenon. I still have several Magnums from year’s past in one of my beer refrigerators, as well as at least a case of 12-ounce bottles from various years stretching back to the early 1990s. There’s nothing more enjoyable than doing a vertical tasting of Anchor Christmas beers. I’ve done a few myself, at least one at the Celebrator and twice at Anchor Brewing with older beers from their private cellar. It’s great fun to compare both the different year’s recipes and also what the aging process has done to the beer.

Last night was Anchor’s annual Christmas party and it was my first chance to have this year’s Christmas Ale on draft, though I’d had bottles several times. To my mind, this year’s tastes quite similar to last year but I haven’t yet had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison. The spicing is mild, as has been typical in recent years. As a result, it has a wider appeal — though for myself I miss the heavily spiced days — and is still a wonderful beer. I won’t even try to speculate on what spices are there, that’s a better thing to do with friends over a shared pint or bottle.

One last thing about winter ales that is somewhat different from most traditional seasonal beers. Unlike springbocks or marzens, which are distinct styles, holiday beers can be any style that the brewer chooses. This has led to much more diversity in Christmas beers than in any other kind of seasonal. Even summer ales, which have no style attached to them, still tend to be lighter so they’re more appropriate during that season’s warmer weather. This makes tasting all of the holiday beers the most enjoyable one each year, because you never know what you’re going to get. It’s fun seeing what a brewery decided to brew when left to do whatever they fancied. Since brewers under such circumstances tend to make what they like, you can learn different brewers’ personal tastes, which can be useful in evaluating their other efforts. Plus, it’s just plain fun, the best time of the year to try different beers is without question the winter when strong, full-flavored beers of striking diversity are king. It’s the most wonderful season of all.

Holding a cup of Christmas Ale by the Anchor “tree” at their annual Christmas party last night.


Pacific Coast Brewing’s “A Taste of Holiday Beers”

The 19th annual holiday beer tasting at Pacific Coast Brewing in Oakland is this Saturday from Noon to 4:00 p.m. Sad to say, I’ve never managed to make it to this one but everybody tells me it’s a great event.



Pacific Coast Brewing’s Taste of Holiday Beers (19th annual)

Pacific Coast Brewing, 906 Washington Street, Oakland, California
510.836.2739 [ website ]


Dogfish Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Bar & Grill, located in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York at 160 Court Street, will be hosting a pretty spectacular tasting of Dogfish Head beers on the 27th of November, including the debut releases for 2007 of World Wide Stout, Pangaea, and Golden Era, along with seven other Dogfish Head beers on draft. The festivities will begin at 6:00 p.m.


Sierra Nevada to Bottle Fresh Hops

Almost a dozen years ago, Sierra Nevada head brewer Steve Dresler was having lunch with renowned hop expert Gerard Lemmens. He had just returned from England, where he’d been helping a brewer there figure out how to use whole, unkilned hops. Gerard asked Dresler if he’d ever considered using fresh hops.

He hadn’t, of course, but the idea marinated and a few days later he mentioned it to Ken Grossman who told him to “go for it.” The first year, Dresler made only one 100-barrel batch. In the intervening years, as demand for the beer has risen quickly, many obstacles have been overcome, such as how to ship that many hops or how to convert a recipe from regular hops (which are 8-10% water) to fresh hops (which can be as much as 80% water). Also that first year, an entire UPS truck was filled with small boxes of fresh hops bundled together with holes poked into them. Today, they’re overnighted in mesh onion sacks laid out flat in a single layer of a 18-wheel refrigerator truck. Each year, both Cascade (@2/3) and Centennial (@1/3) hops are used, but because they’re different from year to year — and because the exact quantities of each differ — the beer has to be reformulated on the fly. When it’s brewed is always a moving target because it’s contingent on when the hops are ready to be picked. Often it’s around Labor Day weekend, but you never know. Over the last eleven years, the most Harvest Ale they’ve made in a single year has been around 800-900 barrels available on draft only.

This year, however, Sierra Nevada is taking a giant leap and is planning to brew 3,000 barrels, using 16,000 pounds of fresh hops in two batches. And more exciting still, two-thirds of it will be available nationwide in 24-oz. bottles. I suspect it will sell out fast, not least of which because even though they’re making triple the usual amount, it will be sent all over the country meaning only small amounts which reach most markets. I’ve learned that the final brew was done last Thursday, September 6, and they hope to have it in the bottles as early as September 24. Keep an eye out for it, and buy it right away. But more importantly, drink it right away, too. This is the very antithesis of a beer meant to be aged. Make up your own special event to drink it. Get some fresh, locally made food and cook up a great meal. Invite your favorite people over to share it with you. This is the best way to celebrate harvest time, with the fruits of the harvest, both food and drink.

Hell in a Rice Basket

Great Divide Brewing has been making some terrific beers for years and years, and with the recent addition of brewer Brit Antrim, I only expect them to get even better. They’ve just released a pair of new seasonal beers, Hades and Samurai that are in a slightly different direction for the brewery.

From the press release:

Hades is a Belgian-style strong golden ale (7.3% ABV) brewed with a proprietary Belgian yeast strain originally from Belgium’s Moortgat brewery. The yeast gives the beer a distinctive spicy flavor and aroma. A noticeable hop level and a medium malt character make the beer an assertive, yet extremely well-balanced and crisp ale.

Great Divide founder Brian Dunn decided that a Belgian-style strong golden would be the brewery’s next beer and set the general parameters, while Brit Antrim, brewery operations manager, developed the recipe for the beer.

“I wanted a Belgian-style beer with lots of character and flavor,” Dunn says, “but with slightly lower alcohol for drinkability reasons. You can drink a couple glasses of Hades and not end up with a helluva buzz.”

Dunn says the beer pairs up well with steamed mussels, crusty breads and virtually any artisan-style cheese. He says the beer’s spicy charm makes it a fine summer time refresher.

Hades is only the second Belgian-style beer brewed by Great Divide. The company made a Belgian-style wit back in 1999. Hades is available in all Great Divide markets in 22-ounce bottles, and on draft in limited supply.

Brewed with rice and barley malts, Samurai is an easy drinking and unique version of unfiltered ale. The addition of rice gives Samurai (5.2% ABV) a crisp, refreshing and clean taste that pairs well with fish, Asian food, and lighter styles of cheeses.

Dunn points out that Samurai is not an Asian-style beer despite its name and rice component. “Asian beers are typically tightly filtered lagers brewed with rice and barley,” Dunn says. “Samurai is very different, it’s fermented with an ale yeast and it’s unfiltered. The ale yeast gives Samurai a slightly fruity flavor and aroma.”

“I felt,” Dunn says, “that we needed an accessible, super-quaffable beer for the summer, but one that wasn’t brewed with wheat. The rice makes Samurai crisp and clean, and gives it a unique twist for a craft-brewed summer beer.”

Now available in six packs and on draft, Samurai has been a draft-only beer in the Denver market for the past 2 years. Growing interest and demand for the beer in the Denver area prompted Great Divide to release the beer as a bottled summer seasonal.

Dunn is proud to acknowledge that his company’s two new beers may come as a surprise to Great Divide fans. “We’ve become known for Yeti-sized, hoppy, assertive beers,” Dunn says. “But these beers allow us to flex a different set of our brewing muscles, and mix things up a bit for our fans.”

I’ll be in Denver at the end of the month, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to give both of these a try while I’m there.