Anchor Brewing | Christmas Ale 2019
Few breweries have the storied past of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, California. Brewing beer since 1896 and bought by Fritz Maytag in 1969, Anchor has been a staple in brewing history for more than a century. One of their longest-running beers is the seasonal Christmas Ale, available from November to early January.
This year marks the 45th year of this beer being brewed and it goes through a rigorous process to stay true to the last tradition.
“It is a group effort by the brewing team,” said Brewmaster Scott Ungerman. “We always start in late March with the beer from the previous year. We re-taste the beer, look at the recipe and talk about what we want to add and what we want to take away. We look at the hops and the spices and the specialty malts and come up with some directional ideas.”
“You have probably noticed the steady increase in ABV over the last few beers – this was intentional – with the goal of allowing the beer to age more gracefully,” continued Ungerman.
“We begin brewing trial batches in April and finalize a recipe by May so that we can get the formulation approved and the materials ordered in time for July brewing. Yes – Christmas Ale in July is a thing. The first shipments go out in August to our international partners and we have to ramp up brewing to be ready. All along the way, there is much tasting and some final tweaking to get it just where we want it.
“Christmas Ale is a beer to be shared with family and friends, so it needs to feel festive and feel special. Ultimately it has to be drinkable & balanced too. We want people to be able to enjoy the beer whether they drink it before, during or after their holiday feasts – it pairs well with all kinds of foods – antipasto, roasted meats, bread pudding, etc… but it is also something to just sit back and drink by itself while wrapped in a warm blanket on the couch.”
Of all of the recipes for Anchor’s past and present beers, there is none more secretive than the Christmas ale, with small adjustments every year. When asked if there was anything he could tell us, Ungerman said, “We have varied the specialty malts this year to make it a beautiful brown hue reminiscent of a classic Brown Ale with spices. The spices are subtle enough to create a delightful herbaceous coastal aromatic that is reflective of the Northern California coastline that we love so much.”
Not only does the recipe vary bit by bit each year, but the label does, too. A press release by Anchor said: “As each Christmas Ale recipe evolves, so does its hand-drawn packaging, created by long-time Anchor Illustrator Jim Stitt, who has created 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. This year, Stitt illustrated the Western Arborvitae – the “tree of life” – across the label. It is an evergreen conifer native to Northern California, the same region that Anchor has called home for over 123 years.”
“Slightly darker than last year’s Christmas Ale, the 2019 edition is layered with toasted caramel and coffee flavors with subtle hints of Mexican chocolate, rounded out with herbaceous spices. Crack open a bottle for a spiced whiff of western evergreens, roasted malts and coastal flowers,” said Ungerman. “It’s a rich, round and full bodied-treat with a silky, smooth finish. Christmas Ale is best served in a big open glass at a table full of family and friends.”
This beer tastes similar to an American Brown Ale, with defined spices. Fine hop notes of floral spice, possibly English type of hops, with hints of roast malt. The spices come off as nutmeg, cardamon, stale vanilla beans, juniper berries and pine needles. After hearing Ungerman describe it as Mexican hot chocolate, I got bits of it, but not in the way you would expect from chilies. Recommended to age over time, they estimate 3-5 years being the ideal range of storage in a cool, dry place.
Overall, it’s a fantastic beer that warms you up this winter season regardless of what holidays you might or might not celebrate! Cheers!
Title Image Compliments of Anchor Brewing.