Twelve Beers of Christmas #8: Merry Christmas Happy New Year Our Special Ale 2018, 2013, and 2018. (Anchor Christmas Ale) | Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco, California
Date: January 1, 2019
The Story— We’re presenting our list of 12 great beers for the season. Some are relatively easy to find, others are from our archives and beer vault. Follow these posts for other beers in the series: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh,
We celebrate the new year with a small vertical tasting of Anchor Christmas Ale. We try to stock up enough to taste a current version against the previous year and another from longer ago. The current version is always our first new beer of the year. Somehow we missed 2012, but otherwise we’ve tasted every version since 1986.
By the 1980s we had run into a number of brewers who recommended laying beers down for vertical tastings. Eldridge Pope claimed its Thomas Hardy Ale would last 25 years — in fact we have 30 year old bottles that we try every year and they’re doing just fine. Kris Herteleer took us through a wild ride of vintaged Oerbier when we visited him late in the decade. But those were really strong beers. Mark Carpenter, head brewer at Anchor, proved that though booze and hops help preserve beer, they aren’t essential. One night at the Brickskeller he joined us with a lineup of 10 years of Anchor Christmas Ales that had been kept cool at the brewery. It was probably the best vertical tasting of our lives. Mark was able to guide us through the beers, pointing out how flavors had changed through age and how flavors changed through recipe revisions.
No one talks about this anymore, but from 1975 at least until the late 80s, the formula changed by adding one new ingredient and adjusting quantities of the others. We don’t know when they gave up and played a subtraction game, but we know this year’s version is diminished in spice seems to rely more on specialty malts to achieve some of the complex flavors.
Scott Ungermann replaced Mark Carpenter as head brewer just a few years ago. He trod lightly at first, but has moved lately to putting his own stamp on the formulation. Alcohol is up and may move higher in future versions. The first beers had an ABV of 5.5% and this year its either 6,7 or 6.9, (Mensjournal.com quotes Ungermann as stating the former; the Anchor website lists the latter) but either represents a fairly big step up. Perhaps the higher alcohol will help this less spicy version mature as well as its older spicy brothers.
Another change over the year is in the branding. Originally “Merry Christmas Happy New Year Our Special Ale” the brewery has come to call it simply “Anchor Christmas Ale.” whew.
We understand why Ungermann and his crew have strayed somewhat farther from the tradition of this beer than they’d like to admit. There are limits to what can be accomplished by dumping the kitchen’s spice cabinet into the kettle and tank and if Anchor hasn’t found those limits, it’s certain that a good many other brewers who followed in Anchor’s footsteps have. Anchor probably had little choice but to do some exploring if it intended to craft beers that were distinctively different from year to year. Still, we’re a bit nostalgic; Anchor not only defined the spiced brown ale style, but usually towered above imitators. This year’s beer is very good indeed, but in achieving it, Anchor seems to have lost a bit of its identity.
The Beer— It takes a while for the whole performance of the 2018 to emerge: starts with big malt with figgy and chocolate puddings. Discernible hops follow. The spice is gentle and the beer is much more pitcherable (or magnum-able) than many of its predecessors. It’s complex without being dauntingly spicy. Both 2013 and 208 were in fine drinkable condition and shared much more with each other than with the 2018. These were the intensely spicy Anchor beers that we’ve come to know over the past 30 years. The 2013 was one of the most intensely spicy beers of the series and may have approached the “wall” for spiced beers. The spices in the 2008, however, had settled into a deeper and less formidable background role with big rich malts more than holding their own. We’ll be interests ted to see if a few more years allows the 2013 to settle into the same drinkable balance.
Value — very good. 2018 was a year of scarcity for Anchor Christmas in the Mid Atlantic. Most Virginia stores, if they received any at all, were sold out by October and most Maryland stores didn’t make it much past Thanksgiving. Anchor could have jerked up the prices given that sort of scarcity, but didn’t, and we purchased a sixpack for $11.99 at Kent Island’s Winery — a good beer store better known for its selection than for bargain prices.
Values: “fair” is a good beer at an above market price, “good” is worth the money, “very good” is a bargain, and “excellent” is a steal.