TAP Beer of the Week: Our Special Ale, Anchor Brewing

As it did with other withered brewing traditions in the country in the last quarter of the last century, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. stepped in, or up, to breathe new life into them. One such was the notion of brewing a special beer around the Christmas holidays.

Now virtually every brewery in the land, and worldwide for that matter, puts out some kind of holiday ale or winter warmer, usually a strong or spiced or in some way out of the ordinary brew. I went on about this in a piece last year, noting a few others as well as Anchor’s.

But back in 1975 when Anchor brewed its first Our Special Ale, there was virtually nothing similar on the landscape. Fritz Maytag and his crew look positively visionary in retrospect.

Anchor continued the custom annually, supposedly varying the recipe each year, though keeping the brewing details close to the vest. One early version became part of the regular portfolio, however, as Liberty Ale (day-to-day one of my favorite beers).

The company definitely varied the label from year to year with some kind of tree–either stylized or actual. For the arborists in the audience, this year’s specimen is the Bristlecone Pine, and that’s Pinus longaeva for the sophomores in the crowd.

The company produced a nice little video about the whole magilla this year, so why not trot it right out?:

The beer is in its 37th iteration, and I can’t say that I’ve had them all. I barely knew Anchor existed in 1975. But I’ve had most at least since 1988, the first Our Special Ale bottle in my collection.

The beer is always a welcome sight when it appears in stores each November, and not buying at least a six-pack is virtually unthinkable.

Though the brewers won’t say what’s in it, I’ve suspected some kind of spruce adjunct for quite awhile now, or maybe even spruce tips. In any case, the ale is a spicy concoction with clove and nutmeg notes, and its piney aroma in a complex weave of hops, spice and malt all streaming out of the glass.

The beer is nearly opaque, with mahogany hues when held to the light. The flavor delivers all that the bouquet promises–sweet, tangy, full, well-bittered.

The spruce character seems somewhat less aggressive to me than in years’ past, which I think is a good thing. The beer has tended to taste as though it’s straight from the forest, maybe a stand of Bristlecone Pine. It still tends to summon the image of a Christmas tree. And, since ‘tis the season, all is well.

Name: Our Special Ale 2011
Brewer: Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco
Style: Spice/Herb/Specialty Beer
ABV: 5.5%
Availability: Nov-Feb, nationwide
For More Information: www.anchorbrewing.com

Related posts:
Anchor Porter
Anchor Steam Beer

2 Responses to “TAP Beer of the Week: Our Special Ale, Anchor Brewing”

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  1. Chris

    Good Stuff that Anchor Steam!
    I was revisited to years long gone this winter when I “found” Anchor Steam over here in Sweden! My first taste of this nectar of Gods was in 1989 when I lived at Lake Tahoe for a year. I fell head-over-heels (pun intended) for this tasty treat then, and I still think it is one of my all time favorites today. I picked up my first Anchor Steam Christmas Ale this year (and some old favorite Liberty Ale) and enjoyed a truly “smack-dacious” delight.
    Which brings me to my quandary – Where to get old Anchor Steam Christmas Ale labels?
    I soaked the a bottle in water to pop the label off (not even going to attempt a bottle collection since the wife would kill me), so I now have my first Christmas Ale label.
    Anybody have any suggestions?
    What a fine Brew. I hope that the Svensk Systembolaget (Sweden’s Alcohol outlet/control) continues bringing this beer to us.
    Cheers all, Chris

  2. Tom Bedell

    By all means, Chris, good luck with the Svensk Systembolaget!

    I have no idea how to obtain old Anchor Christmas Ale labels, unless someone is selling them on eBay. (Isn’t everything sold on eBay eventually?) But we’ll put the word out and see if anyone has a suggestion. Cheers!

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