This is a review of Anchor’s “Our Special Ale”, the 36th edition of their Christmas ale.
The famous aromatic spruce essence is right up front on the nose of this 36th version. This is the first edition produced after Fritz Maytag’s retirement, and perhaps the brewery being owned by a whiskey distiller, explains why I think for the first time (I maybe wrong), a 5.5% abv designation is found on the Merry Christmas & Happy New Year label.
The beer itself is quite smooth, although nowhere near the flavor complexity achieved in some earlier versions. The famous spruce signature acts as an anchor (no pun intended, or perhaps maybe not!) keeping this wassail in focus, all the way to the semi-dry finish.
Easy to drink, the aftertaste is slightly chalky, but not unpleasant.
Released on November 1, this is the freshest example I have ever sampled. I’ve been trying the special ales since the 17th edition. I still recall reading James Robertson’s review of the 16th version, where he stated that he remembered the very early editions that were non-wassail, and he said that he missed them. After 20 years of sampling these magnificent spiced ales, I would not begrudge Anchor if they decided for the 37th to start in a new direction. In other words, maybe it is time to cut the spruce loose, although its legendary popularity may make that seem improbable. Wassail was an exciting and novel holiday treat back in the early 1990’s. Its popularity amongst beer seekers created such classics as Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig and Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Eventually this lead to such high powered offerings as Lakefront Holiday Lager.
Much of the mystique and aura associated with these annual offerings has become almost expected. Those who are new to Anchor’s Christmas will experience an exciting new universe that I first discovered two decades ago.
When it comes to beer, the winter/holiday season will always be my favorite time of year. The annual return of many favorites made over so many years, they can rightfully be deemed classics. Memories abound here too. For I recall first tastings: Samuel Adams Winter Lager, when it was just a non spiced, raw wheat beer. La Binchoise Speciale Noel: the incredible Belgian Christmas wassail, back when a gentleman from Michigan, Jeff Dafoe, introduced this world classic to the United States for the first time, 14 years ago.
I will also never forget my friend Gar’s reaction to first tasting Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 1993: “that’s one spicy taco!”
It is impossible for me to forget these things. The first Anchor Brewing “Our Special Ale” was the 17th edition of their Christmas offering. As a determined seeker of beer, this was quite a revelation.
The same can said of my beloved Saranac Season’s Best (an all-time Beer Doctor favorite). At one time it was a Holiday Amber and then later, Nut Brown Lager. A Vienna style beer, rich in malt flavor with lively hops, but not extreme or boozy in any way. It has become nearly impossible to obtain in Ohio any longer. The brewery was kind enough to send a gift of a six pack, right after the New Year of 1997. Such kindness and generosity I will never forget.
There have been many surprises along the way. Coors Winterfest 1995, was truly a shock for how good it was in those days, when macro and mini breweries were marketed like the Berlin Wall, where never the twain shall meet.
I would also like to mention that Leinenkugel’s Winter Lager was a great moderately priced holiday beer, that alas, was abandoned. Much of the distinctive aspects of the Leinie portfolio has been lost, as they aggressively market more pedestrian beers.
Moving away from remembrance of beers past, I would like to mention that this year is the first time I’ve tried Shiner Holiday Cheer, a unique dark wheat ale brewed with peaches and pecans. A very tasty, original recipe contribution.
For flat-out big time boozy wassail, Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spice Lager Beer, is what the doctor ordered. A massive, full strength, bold Holiday beer.
My only prayer is Thank You!