Saturday, December 31, 2016

Pic(k) of the Week: 42 years of Anchor's "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."

Our Special Ale 2016

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.

Anchor Christmas 1975

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.

Anchor Christmas 2016

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:

Thousand Mile Tree (1869)

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?)

Anchor Christmas 1975
Silhouette of a Christmas tree

Anchor Christmas 1976
Sequoiadendron giganteum

Anchor Christmas 1977
Pseudotsuga menziesii

Anchor Christmas 1978
Inspired by an evergreen in the Sierra Nevadas
Anchor Christmas 1979
Inspired by the Original Christmas Ale Tree
Anchor Christmas 1980
Genus: Quercus

Anchor Christmas 1981
Olea europaea

Anchor Christmas 1982
Notholithocarpus densiflorus

Anchor Christmas 1983
Abies cephalonica

Anchor Christmas 1984
Tree of Life

Anchor Christmas 1985
Arbutus menziesii

Anchor Christmas 1986
Castanopsis chrysophylla
Anchor Christmas 1987
Sequoia sempervirens

Anchor Christmas 1988
Picea glauca

Anchor Christmas 1989
Acer pseudoplatanus

Anchor Christmas 1990
Inspired by the work of French artist Paul Cézanne
Anchor Christmas 1991
Betula papyrifera

Anchor Christmas 1992
Pinus ponderosa

Anchor Christmas 1993
Malus pumila

Anchor Christmas 1994
Inspired by the Original Christmas Ale Tree
Anchor Christmas 1995
Cocos nucifera
Anchor Christmas 1996
Quercus alba
Anchor Christmas 1997
Pinus sylvestris
Anchor Christmas 1998
Juniperus californica
Anchor Christmas 1999
Olneya tesota

Anchor Christmas 2000
Torreya californica

Anchor Christmas 2001
Washingtonia filifera
Anchor Christmas 2002
Populus fremontii

Anchor Christmas 2003
Picea sitchensis

Anchor Christmas 2004
Inspired by the Original Christmas Ale Tree
Anchor Christmas 2005
Quercus agrifolia

Anchor Christmas 2006
Fagus sylvatica

Anchor Christmas 2007
Quercus lobata

Anchor Christmas 2008
Pinus jeffreyi

Anchor Christmas 2009
Cupressus macrocarpa
Anchor Christmas 2010
Ginkgo biloba

Anchor Christmas 2011
Pinus longaeva

Anchor Christmas 2012
Araucaria heterophylla
Anchor Christmas 2013
Abies concolor var. Lowiana
Anchor Christmas 2014
Sequoiadendron giganteum
Anchor Christmas 2015
Cedrus Deodara
Anchor Christmas 2016
Pinus Solitarius

  • All of the Fritz Maytag quotations were taken from Christmas Beer (2008) by Don Russell.
    Christmas Beer
  • 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:


  1. The annual release of Anchor's "Our Special Ale" is a cherished tradition that brings joy and celebration to beer enthusiasts. I remember the first time I tasted it, the IPA version brewed with Cascade hops, and it instantly became a favorite. Each year, the unique recipe and the beautifully drawn tree on the label evoke a sense of anticipation and wonder. It's amazing how this beer has become a timeless work of art and a symbol of the rich history of craft beer.

  2. Having savored the unique yearly brews of Anchor's "Our Special Ale" for the past few decades, this blog post absolutely fills me with nostalgia. The rich complexity of the ale, laced with hints of gingerbread and nutmeg, still has the power to transport me back to my first tasting, a time when "craft" was a novel term in the beer industry. Reflecting upon Fritz Maytag's contribution to the revival of this tradition, I find myself marvelling at the unchanging essence of this beer - a celebration of life and joy - despite its ever-evolving recipe and flavor profile.

  3. I remember being introduced to Anchor's "Our Special Ale" by a close friend during a Christmas gathering back in the early '90s. The intricate history behind each label and the ever-evolving recipe truly showcases the passion and dedication of the brewery. It's amazing to see how one beer has played such a pivotal role in the evolution of American 'craft' beer over the decades.

  4. This Anchor's "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" jingle is an absolute classic. It never fails to bring that warm, festive feeling every holiday season. Thanks for sharing this blast from the past! This jingle takes me back to my childhood, and I'm thrilled to see it again after all these years. It's amazing how something so simple can evoke such strong feelings of nostalgia and holiday cheer.
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