“Each year since 1975, Anchor Brewing creates a distinctive Christmas Ale, available from early November to mid-January. A rich, dark spiced ale, our secret recipe is different every year—as is the tree on the label—but the intent remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life.
Each year our Christmas Ale gets a unique label and a unique recipe. Although our recipes must remain a secret, many save a few bottles from year to year. Properly refrigerated, the beer remains intriguing and drinkable for years. Different nuances emerge as the flavor mellows slightly, much like the memories of great holiday seasons past. Celebrate the holidays with Anchor Christmas Ale, an Anchor tradition since 1975.”
Karl: It’s a little unfair to call this a “vertical,” since the Anchor Xmas recipe famously changes from year to year. So rather than treating this as a check-in to see which year’s offerings are currently paying cellar dividends, we’re looking at this as just a spectrum of brewing history. If you happen to have some of these tucked away for a snowy day in the near future, here’s what you have (in our opinions) to look forward to.
- ‘07: For a half-decade-old beer this is surprisingly complex. Rich coffee, grapes, Christmas spices and even a touch of burnt marshmallow throughout and some nice cola-like complexity, this beer is still hearty enough despite having a body that’s thinner than the rest. No worries about that, though – you’ll spend enough time considering the dry finish and the long tail of spearmint this beer leaves behind. It’s developed a bit of mustiness on the end as well, but ain’t nothing wrong with this year’s brew. Still plenty of life left to it.
- ‘08: A more bitter offering than the ‘07, it’s also got some nice full flavors of gingerbread poking through the spices and cola flavors. Not as much grape and a little more funk on the finish, and perchance even lighter in body than the rest of our offerings.
- ‘09: Anchor did something very right with this year – I’m not quite sure what it was, but this beer just hit all the high notes for me. A gush of dark cherries and raisins up front, with a menthol-mint finish that reminded me of certain cocktails I’ve had. Maybe even close to a Manhattan minus the sting of whiskey, this one was an absolute winner.
- ‘10: While I’m used to beers thinning out over time, the differing recipes for this make comparing the bodies of these beers virtually useless. The ‘10 is thinner, not thicker, than the ‘09, and definitely less complex, with added notes of hoppy bitterness and some snappy nutmeg. These beers are letting us get back into the lingering carbonation, making this beer similar to the ‘09 but much easier going down. There’s also something strangely savory to this, like a meal of a beer rather than a Christmas-cookie dessert.
- ‘11: This year went back to the grapevines, with flavors of red grapes being most pronounced along with a surprising touch of lime and some biscuit-y, bready yeast characteristics – maybe like gingerbread minus the ginger. This beer definitely sparkles more than our other offerings, reminding me pleasantly of a Christmas berlinerweiss, with plenty of sweetness to offer a fresh palate.
Ryan: We’ve been sitting on this “vertical” for a while now, seemingly never having quite enough time to devote to a tasting of five different beers from the same brewer. Even at 4 oz a person it can seem like a tall task. So we tend to go for the single 12 oz bottle of something in the cellar. It’s easier and less time-consuming. During our last tasting, however, I threw caution to the wind and pulled five years of Anchor Christmas out of the cellar. And it turned out to be a really great idea.
Much like Karl did, I’ll break each beer down by year.
- ‘07: This offering smelled clean with maybe a touch of raisins and brown sugar in the nose. Lots of carbonation greets the palate, which is surprising given this beer is five years old. The raisins and brown sugar carry over onto the flavor profile with some added cinnamon and nutmeg in the finish – which is remarkably dry. Quite the pleasant sipper.
- ‘08: My notes lead with the phrase, “remarkable carbonation,” and it was quite pleasant – highlighting the brown sugar, molasses and black licorice flavors. It was a bit syrupy too and almost medicinal in body, but overall a very easy drinking and hearty Christmas Ale.
- ‘09: Yup, here we go. Syrupy and thick with a heavy body, the ‘09 Anchor Christmas drinks more like a porter than a Christmas Ale. Spearmint or evergreen greets the nose and honey and raisins assault the palate. Amusingly, we tried this beer with about six months of age on it in 2010 and were not the least bit impressed. I guess that goes to show you what some time in the cellar can do for a beer.
- ‘10: It would seem that, while Anchor uses a different recipe each time, that each beer has a bit more body to it the fresher it gets. I suppose that makes sense regardless of whether the recipe is the same or not each time. The ‘10 Our Special Ale is far sweeter than the previous three offerings with some plums and cherries on the nose and the palate. This one, even at a year old, is a world-class winter warmer.
- ‘11: Well carbonated, creamy and very drinkable; the freshest of the bunch was maybe the least exciting but was by far the most consistent with a filling bready-ness and dark fruit sweetness.