Has it really been ten years? It will be after we plow through this year’s 12 Beers of Christmas, and as we’ve done for the entire run we’re starting with Anchor Brewing’s annual Christmas beer, officially called Our Special Ale.
New to the scene? There’s plenty of background for this wacky endeavor at last year’s wrap-up, the 12 Beers of Christmas 2020 Reprise. Suffice it to say that with 108 beers more or less (more, actually) reviewed over the years, there’s no resisting the built-up momentum. All the beers have been different, even the Anchor, which changes its recipe every year and seems deserving, to me at least, of leading off every year because the company pretty much single handedly revived the very notion in the U.S. of brewing a special beer for the holidays.
Their first was in 1975. Then, as now, a tree symbolizing the coming solstice rebirth has appeared on the label, also different every year. For 44 of those years the label was drawn by James Stitt. Last year, at 93, he passed the job onto a new artist, Nathan Yoder. Yoder, in the blink of an eye, has already been succeeded, by illustrator Steven Noble.
This year’s label features the Western Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia, and it was a relief to see that Noble has pretty much retained Stitt’s style. Stitt actually did most of Anchor’s labels, all of which had a folksy, old-timey look. One might even call them classic. But in late January Anchor unveiled new branding which did away with all the old labels and replaced them with a more generic look, uniform across the brand. For this bold move the company (now owned by Sapporo) was drawn and quartered on social media, then tossed overboard with an anchor tied around its ankles.
The company felt the heat and mounted a social media defense that certainly made sense from a marketing standpoint—in a market where old and established beer brands were being pressed by buyers in search of novelty, rather than anything old and established. But in this case, sense is trumped by sensibility. The new look may make better sense, but it’s terrible art.
So three cheers for the Joshua Tree label. The tree is common to California’s high desert, not to mention Joshua Tree National Park. And this year Anchor is donating a portion of sales of this year’s Christmas ale to One Tree Planted, a nonprofit dedicated to global reforestation, a pleasing thought in a season when many of us are installing cut trees right in the living room.
(Perhaps a Gram Parsons tune might be in order while drinking the beer this year. Parsons and his road manager, Phil Kaufman, had made a pact that whichever of them survived the other, would cremate the deceased in Joshua Tree National Park. So after Parsons died of an overdose, Kaufman rented a hearse, drove to LA Airport and managed to claim Parsons’ body (more accurately, stealing it), taking it to the Park and lighting it up. There’s actually a 2003 movie about this—not a Christmas film—called “Grand Theft Parsons.”)
Anchor’s brewmaster Tom Riley took over the reins last year from Scott Ungarmann, after the 2020 Our Special Ale recipe was already in the books, so to speak. So the 2021 batch is more fully his creation, and he’s done a splendid job. I put the 2020 and 2021 side by side, as our first sticking snowfall came down today. The beers look virtually identical, both are 7% ABV, as strong as the Anchor Christmas beers have ever been. Looked at in the light the 2020 has a slighter browner cast to it, the 2021 registers some deep garnet highlights.
As I said last year, the 2020 has a firm malt backbone, which now suggests a touch of molasses to me. But the sharp herbal note is still prevalent. It’s quite distinct from the 2021 entry.
As usual, no recipe ingredients were divulged, but the brewery’s pr release about 2021 was downright chatty in suggesting, “… notes of rich, bittersweet chocolate with hints of raspberry and light mulling spices such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and cardamom.”
Pretty fair description—the spicing is light and suggests itself mostly in a lightly puckering finish. But my first and prevailing impression of the beer is fruit—not so much a hint of raspberry but a strong suggestion of dark cherries, with an almost woody mouthfeel.
While imbibing, here’s an obscure holiday tune recorded in 1967 by a thrown-together group called The Christmas Spirit. “Will You Still Believe in Me?” features Linda Ronstadt on harmony, and on lead? Gram Parsons.
[Dec. 18, 2021]