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Thirsty Thursday: Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale

Photo by Ed Miller

Welcome to Thirsty Thursday, a weekly column where we pick a beer from our fridge and review it, because in a world where two new breweries launch every single week, sometimes we need some help sifting through all of the hops.

It’s that time of year, when many of the country’s breweries inundate stores with Christmas efforts, but finding the perfect beer for the holiday season can be difficult.  Lucky for me, there’s two Christmas beers on my list that are essential holiday enjoyment, so when I was out grabbing a six-pack of Tröegs Brewing Company’s Mad Elf, I noticed that the 2019 iteration of Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale was sitting on the next shelf.  I excitedly scooped it up, with the intention of enjoying some during the long Thanksgiving weekend. I know the Christmas season seemingly starts earlier and earlier these days but this beer probably won’t last in my refrigerator until Christmas, so now seemed like the perfect time to review it.

Founded in 1896 – one of the west coast’s oldest breweries – by Ernst F. Baruth, the San Francisco-based brewery experienced a rollercoaster journey during its history, one that nearly ended in 1956 before Fredrick Louis Maytag III purchased it, saving it from almost certain closure.  Things are going a little better these days for the brewery, which was recently purchased by Japan-based Sapporo Breweries, as it pumped out about 90,000 barrels of beer last year.  Anchor currently has 10 beers in its repertoire, the most famous of which is Steam Beer, trademarked by the company.  

A close second to the Steam Beer, as far as popularity, is Anchor’s Christmas Ale.  Originally brewed and bottled in 1975, it was the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition, according to the company.  Every year, Anchor creates a new, secret recipe – so much so, the company doesn’t even publicly reveal the hops or malts.  This year marks the 45th annual release with what it describes as “slightly darker than last year’s Christmas Ale,” explaining that drinkers should expect “toasted caramel and coffee flavors with subtle hints of Mexican chocolate, rounded out with herbaceous spices.”

Available from November until January virtually everywhere Anchor distributes, the 6.9 percent ABV Christmas Ale is a holiday tradition, one that beer drinkers look forward to, while sometimes complaining about a slight variance in flavor from the previous batch, each and every year. Read on to see if that’s me.  

The label of this beer has as much of a rich history as what’s inside.  Since the recipe evolves, so does what’s on the label, which is created by Anchor illustrator Jim Stitt.  He’s created the labels since the Christmas Ale’s inception, marking the brew with some sort of tree. Trees symbolize the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew and, this year, Stitt featured a Western Arborvitae – the “tree of life.” The tree is an evergreen conifer, native to Northern California, the area where Anchor has called home for well over a century.  At the top of the bottle, the smaller label perfectly explains the changing recipe and label for the drinker.

When I popped open the bottle, I noticed the aroma of pine.  It was strong and it was wonderful – but there was also some hints of both caramel and toffee, brought on from the malts.  For a holiday beer such as this one, that’s the kind of smell I want when cracking one open during unwrapping presents or enjoying a decadent meal with the family.  As for the pour, it didn’t feature a lot of head, which was to be expected, and had a dark body with tan head. There was virtually no lacing on the glass as it got more and more empty.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to have a Christmas Ale last year but I certainly don’t remember the 2017 iteration being quite this dark.

The body teetered between light and medium-bodied, with a taste that was highlighted by a toasted flavor.  I also noticed some of the pine and caramel flavor that paralleled the smell but it took a backseat. I got just a little bitterness on the back-end and that felt a little off for some reason. Much like the look when pouring Christmas Ale, it’s much more pungent than previous iterations, concealing the 6.9 percent ABV well, while providing just enough evergreen and pine to pass as a Christmas beer.  I found it to be a slow drinker, something I’d sit around and sip – a beer that would be pretty tasty to warm up to after coming in from the cold weather.

This particular six-pack of 12-ounce bottles was $16.99 at my local beer store, which isn’t a bad price for how much you’re getting and the tout of arguably the country’s oldest Christmas beer.  When I went on to BeerAdvocate, I noticed people either liked the 2019 version or absolutely hated it – there wasn’t much in between the two opinions. The average score for it there was 3.79 based on 27 ratings and I think I would probably hover somewhere near there, at 7.1 out of 10.  Listen, I’ll have no trouble drinking this six-pack and enjoying each and every bottle but I think this year’s version is just a little more potent on the malt and it masks the evergreen and pine that I love. In fairness, Anchor did describe this beer as such.  But you should pick some up and decide for yourself if it’s as good, if not better, than previous efforts.

Stay tuned for next week, because I might just try something from your favorite brewery.