Beer Break Vol. 3, No. 8
To spice or not to spice?
Nov. 21, 2002
Holiday beer (or Christmas beer) is not a style. Weizen beer is a style, Belgian dubbel is a style, but this time of year breweries release everything from beers long on alcohol and hops to ones brimming with fruits and spices.
That makes sampling different beers all the more fun, but a little dangerous for those adverse to particular styles of beer. For instance, if you think of the light-on-the-tongue Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome with its champagne-like bubbles, as the perfect holiday beer then Harpoon Winter Warmer, brimming with spices, might be a shock to your taste buds.
One beer you can count on being long on spices and other flavors you may not be able to identify ("Is that spruce, a bit of pine needle?") is Anchor Brewing Co.'s Our Special Ale. The beer has been around longer than any modern microbrewery (other than Anchor, of course), so you can hardly understate its importance in reviving the tradition of brewing special beers for Christmas.
Anchor made the first Our Special Ale in 1975, and on its 20th anniversary (1994) Anchor owner Fritz Maytag talked about the beer during an interview that appeared in Celebrator Beer News.
He was asked, "What exactly do you use in your Christmas beer?"
"We have only used what I would call 'spices,' although even there we sort of are vague about it: spices, herbs, natural flavors. Since '87 we have made our Christmas Ale different every single year," he said.
"Originally, to a certain extent it was because we were trying to learn to brew ales. In the mid-'70s we were absolutely at total capacity and looking for a building to move to. We were making Anchor Steam and Anchor Porter and every brew we could squeeze in. So we did Christmas Ale just because it was the slower season. I was so eager to brew ale. I quickly came to see that it was really fun to do it differently every year. You don't want to know what you're going to get for Christmas, do you?"
While mainstream breweries in the United States during the second half of the 20th century sometimes produced special holiday beers, those weren't made for the general public. They were given to employees and friends but not sold. While the tradition of making celebratory beers dates back to when most European brewers were monks who saved their finest ingredients for a special brew to honor the birth of Christ, Maytag was still a little hesitant about putting out a beer with "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year" and a tree on the label.
"I was terrified that we would be criticized for commercializing Christmas, for mixing alcohol - beer - with a holiday. And I wanted it to be absolutely clear that we were celebrating, in our own way, not commercializing, but with kind of an integrity that we were hoping to establish," he said.
"But look how times have changed. Now even we have a six-pack. Anyway, so, we just had the very simple label, green and red, and the little tree and the year on it. And we sold, I think, 450 cases. My children and I had the printer make some neck labels that were blank so they were the same color as the bottle label. We didn't put them out commercially, but my family and I gave these away to some friends of ours for Christmas, and we got some little Pentel pens that were the right color green and red and we wrote, 'Merry Christmas from the Maytags,' or whatever. Somebody somewhere has one of those. Now that's a collector's item!"
Yes, Fritz, times certainly have changed. We have more than 100 beers listed in "Beer for the Holidays," and we add several new ones each week. It doesn't matter what kind of beer your are looking for -- be it the smooth, rich St. Nicholas Bock Beer from Penn Brewing in Pittsburgh or the in-your-face hops of Sierra Nevada Celebration.
Meanwhile, drinkers may argue the merits of spruce (Alaskan Winter Ale), vanilla (Anderson Valley Winter Solstice), cranberry (Butte Creek Cranberry Christmas ale) and a variety of other flavors you can find on the shelves. In fact, we found this quote from Portland Brewing Co. founder Fred Bowman in a press release about the brewery's new Mac Frost Winter Ale particularly interesting since his brewery operates in the hops-oriented Northwest:
"Bitter beer brings no holiday cheer," Bowman said. "Actually, there are many great winter warmers that use hops to make a statement, but they're not appropriate for all beer lovers."
And this time of year it's easy to find something that is.
Brewed by the Eggenberg Castle Brewery in Austria
Michael Jackson writes about the 2001 vintage:
The world's most famous Christmas beer. Famously strong, too. Dark amber color, almost cherry-red. Predictably, not much head retention. Slight fruit and yeastiness on the nose. Rich, clean, maltiness. Slips down with dangerous ease. Very smooth. Perhaps a little nuttier than last year, and less yeasty. Soothing, very warming.
The 2002 vintage will be released Dec. 6.
ALASKAN WINTER ALE
Brewed by Alaskan Brewing Co. in Alaska
Michael Jackson writes:
When the explorer Captain Cook made landfall in various parts of the world, he brewed beer, using local materials. His diaries mentioned the use of spruce tips. Cook traveled to Alaska, and the state's best-known brewery has now made its own ale using the tips of Sitka spruce, along with Saaz hops and six malts (pale, Munich, wheat and three types of crystal). This ale, at 6.4 per cent, has an orange color; a sweetly floral bouquet; long, extraordinarily perfumy, flavors; and a cedary dryness in the finish. Brewery founder Geoff Larsen finds it "beguiling"; a good description.