This is the forty-second annual "Our Special Ale" from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale's recipe is different every year, as is the tree on the label, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. This lone pine was found 1,000 miles from Omaha during the westbound construction of the transcontinental railroad.
There was a time, not too long ago —but older than the birthdates of Millenial drinkers— that a beer fancier could find no Christmas beers stacked on American store shelves or poured from bar taps. None.
That is, until 1975, when Anchor Brewing —re-tooled only nine years earlier from a failing 19th-century San Francisco brewery into the first American 'craft' brewery— brewed the nation's first 'craft' Christmas beer. Owner Fritz Maytag named it "Our Special Ale" to molify the religious censors. Now, forty-two years on, Anchor is no longer alone; one can Christmas tipple in profusion.
Here is Maytag on the beer's genesis, as quoted by Don Russell — nom de bière, Joe Sixpack— in his 2008 book, Christmas Beer:
“I was aware of the tradition in medieval villages where they would make special beers for various festival days,” Maytag says. “You'd have beers brewed for weddings, festivals, and other celebrations. And certainly, you'd brew them for Christmas.” It made sense that a small brewery that had been revived thanks to old-world-beer-making techniques would rediscover the tradition of holiday beer. There was only one problem: Maytag didn't have a clue what it should taste like.
For the first few years of its life, Anchor's Our Special Ale was an IPA, brewed with Cascade hops, then a new hop variety. The 1983 version was so well-received, it became a year-round offering called Liberty Ale which is still brewed today. In 1984, Maytag decided to do "something special" for Christmas and brewed a brown ale, but with an American twist: dry-hopped with those Cascade hops. Then, following that, in 1987,
To celebrate his wedding, Maytag crafted a bridal ale filled with herbs and spices. It was so tasty, that the brewery decided to add spices to its [brown ale] holiday ale that winter —and has done so ever since. There's a different recipe each season, and neither Maytag nor any of his employees have ever revealed what's behind those mysterious flavors.
It's been a spiced brown ale ever since. I tasted this year's iteration. And yes! Dark brown with red tinges. Aromas and flavors of gingerbread, nutmeg, pine, and cloves, as if a pfeffernüsse cookie were a beer. But, Mr. Maytag has protested:
No! That's the only thing I'm going to say. There are no cloves in it none. I'm tired of hearing about cloves!
Despite the Christmas-cookie spicing, it's not a sweet dessert beer. Think of savory uses of nutmeg, such as a sweet potato or bechamel-sauce-based dish or, say, 'Cincinnati chili.'
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the year Maytag bought, saved, and revived Anchor, thus ushering in the era of American 'craft' beer. In 2011, Maytag sold the brewery, but remains as "Chairman Emeritus," proud of each of the brewery's beers as "works of art." Each of the forty-two labels of "Our Special Ale" has featured a drawing of a tree, and each (except in 1976) was drawn by one artist, Jim Stitt.
About the tree on this year's label, here's beer (and golf) writer Tom Bedell:
This year’s label is based on the Pinus solitarius, or lone pine, known as the “1,000 Mile Tree” which was found in Utah in 1869 during construction of the Union Pacific, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The tree, a stately ninety feet tall, was almost exactly 1,000 miles from Omaha, the eastern terminus of the railroad, and it became something of a tourist attraction, at least as far as the rail passengers were concerned. The train would often pause at the tree and some passengers would attempt to climb it, as the 1869 photograph by Union Pacific’s A.J. Russell shows:
Stitt clearly based his label on the photo, though it’s hard to tell from Russell’s shot whether the man high atop the tree is holding onto a mug of beer. Probably not, but he is in Stitt’s rendering.
The tree died in 1900 and was removed. But in 1982, Union Pacific planted a new one to commemorate the site, albeit now only about 960 miles from Omaha thanks to track changes over the years. Enclosed within a fence, the tree is in roughly the same spot, though it has a long way to go to match the original’s height.
Our Special Ale: 1975-2016.This winter-holiday season, beer writer Jay Brooks has run a forty-two part series at his blog Brookston Beer Bulletin, depicting each of the beer's labels, from the incarnation of "Our Special Ale" in 1975 to the present year. With his permission, I've collected all of them here in table format: each of the forty-two labels and its corresponding tree. Click on a thumbnail to view a larger image accompanied by a brief story of that year's creation.
Anchor's "Our Special Ale" is but one beer, and by today's 'crafty' standards, fusty, even if 6.5% alcohol-by-volume. That is, until one tastes it, until one reflects on how it has been, and is, a seminal and delicious part of 'craft' beer's half-century history.
As the bottle label states: "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." (And wouldn't the adjectives in that seasonal American salutation make more religious sense if switched, I've long wondered?)
- All of the Fritz Maytag quotations were taken from Christmas Beer (2008) by Don Russell.
- Although the recipe of the 1983 version of Our Special Ale became the year-round version of Liberty Ale, the IPA had first been released, in similar form, in 1975 as a one-off also called Liberty Ale. Although not labelled an IPA per se, it was indeed the first 'craft' IPA and the first American ale to feature Cascade as its prominent hop.
- Although Anchor's beer was the first nationally distributed Christmas beer post-Prohibition —'craft' or otherwise— Miller Brewing also made a Christmas Lager for a brief period in the 1930s. And, according to Russell, several local and regional breweries —pre-craft— also had produced Christmas beers with regionally-limited distribution.
- Pic(k) of the Week: one in a weekly series of photos, usually posted on Saturdays, and often, but not always, with a good fermentable as the subject.
- Camera: Olympus Pen E-PL1.
- Commercial reproduction requires explicit permission, as per Creative Commons.
- For more from YFGF: