It seems almost unfathomable that any single craft beer could be 43 years old.
Before Jim Koch started brewing in his kitchen, before Harpoon dusted off its slice of the Boston waterfront, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. was challenging the way beer was made and sold. And so in 1975, nearly a decade before the big East Coast outfits took up shop, Anchor released the first holiday beer since the end of Prohibition.
Anchor Christmas Ale has become legendary, a marker to count the years by as the formula in the bottle, and the tree on the label, changes. It’s a beer current brewmaster Scott Ungermann was aware of when he first toured the brewery as a college student.
“My dad used to buy it going back to the ’70s,” says Ungermann. “I actually kept one of the bottles for my bottle collection. It’s one of the only parts of my collection that’s survived.”
Anchor starts working on Christmas Ale in the spring, discussing tweaks to the recipe and choosing the tree, which for 2017 is a Santa Lucia Fir, a rare species from the Santa Lucia mountain range along California’s central coast. Bay Area artist James Stitt has been drawing the labels since 1975.
For the second year in a row, Anchor has decided to up the ante on Christmas Ale, raising the ABV from 6.5 percent to 6.7 percent (it was 5.5 two years ago). Also different this year is an increased use of specialty malts, as well as “a much more direct spice note,” according to Ungermann. While the recipe changes — and is kept a secret — the spirit of the drink is constant.
“I remember when I first started homebrewing, I was gonna brew a batch in the fall and give it to everybody for Christmas,” says Ungermann. “Back when Anchor started this it was fun that it had a secret recipe, and it’s always been fun. We give some vague hints at what we do but we like to keep it secret.”
The 2017 version of Anchor Christmas has notes of dark fruits in the nose and tastes like creamy bittersweet chocolate and coffee (but not in a stout-y way). The spices are present as little tingles in the back of the throat rather than some kind of chai assault.
As for how Anchor is paying homage to the history of the beer, Ungermann says he recently assigned one of his brewers to scour the archives for old recipes.
“It would be really fun to brew the ’86 or the ’94,” says Ungermann.Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com