Beer: Christmas Ale Brewery: Anchor Brewing Co. Style: Winter Warmer ABV: 5.5 percent
There are certain flavors I've grown to associate with the holidays. Egg nog and sugar cookies are the taste of Christmas eve; maple-glazed ham epitomizes Christmas morn. But though many beers have tried to claim a place in this pantheon of wintry flavors, only one has done so. No beer out there tastes more like Christmas itself -- the lights, the trees, the nip of cold, the feeling of the yuletide season -- than Anchor Brewing Co.'s Christmas Ale.
First brewed and bottled in 1975, Anchor's winter seasonal was formerly known as "Our Special Ale." The brew falls roughly under an umbrella of styles known as "winter warmer" -- sweet, malty beers that may be darker, stronger, spiced, or otherwise more characterful than a brewery's regular offerings. Many winter warmers are spiced with adjuncts evocative of the Christmas season: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, molasses, maple syrup. These winter seasonals can vary from brewer to brewer, but all are robust, full of character, and perfect for sipping in front of the fire on a cold winter night.
This year marks Anchor Christmas Ale's fortieth annual appearance, which is all the more impressive considering the beer changes every single year. The label artwork -- drawn by San Francisco artist James Stitt since the beer was created -- is updated each annum with a new species of tree, which brewers say "celebrates the joy and newness of life." For 2014, it's the Giant Sequoia, a tree that can live for more than 3,000 years. Also updated each year is the brew's recipe, which is kept top secret but always results in a flavor that evokes the season.
In a glass, Anchor Christmas Ale is colored clear crimson, darkening at different levels to deeper maroon, purple, then deep brown. One finger of homogeneous tan head slowly dissipates, setting up camp as a thin, fleece-like top layer. The complexity of the aroma astounds, with fruity dried raisins leading lavender, hints of pine and brown sugar. The next level down, deeper notes of red grape and hints of cinnamon emerge. It's like the best kind of Christmas potpourri.
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The flavor delivers almost as well as the nose, though with more floral, spicy bitterness. Toasted bread and touches of caramel give way to raisin, brown sugar, clove and pine wood. The malt character is both more prominent and toastier than expected, with roasty tones lingering alongside the spices. Inside an impressively creamy medium body, excitable carbonation breaks the beer into tiny bubbles before hints of ginger and a fruity, brandy-like tang set up camp on the sides of the tongue.
Anchor Christmas Ale hit shelves in November and will be around until mid-January. Grab a sixer and it may also become your beer of choice when decking the halls.