By William Brand
Friday, December 8th, 2006 at 10:13 pm in Uncategorized.
A dozen years ago when beer lovers like me started writing about putting bottles of Anchor Brewing’s Our Special Ale (The holiday beer) away for a couple of years to let it age and mature and the flavors blend, Anchor’s estimable brewers and owner Fritz Maytag, gently scoffed.
Anchor Christmas, they said, was made to be consumed immediately. It has never been bottle conditioned; it’s flash-pastuerized. Drink it today, the advised us.
Anchor’s Fritz Maytag, John Dannererbeck
and Mark Carpenter with a lineup of Anchor
Our Special Ales 1995 – 2006.
We demurred and many of us filled our fridge with Anchor Christmas, because we knew that it changed over time and most often got better.
How times change. Thursday afternoon in the Anchor Tasting room in the brewery in San Francisco, before the annual Anchor Christmas party for its friends and customers, several beerwriters, Jay Brooks, who writes the BrookstonBeer Bulletin, Tom Dalldorf, publisher of the Celebrator Beer News, Camper English, a beer writer and author of “Party Like A Rock Star: Even When You’re Poor as Dirt” . Andy Musser, long the radio voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, and an ardent Anchor fan, Mark Carpenter, Anchor assistant brewmaster; John Dannerbeck, of Anchor, and Fritz Maytag.
Turns out, Anchor’s been saving a library of past “vintages” of Our Special Ale and Mark brought out big bottles of ’95, ’96, ’98, 2000, 2003, 2004 and of course, the current, 2006. All kept upright in refrigerated storage in Anchor’s basement.
The 1996*** was the star. But let’s run through the entire tasting.
Mark Carpenter noted that Anchor’s first Christmas ale, released in 1975, used a base recipe similar to Anchor’s Liberty Ale*****, which was released in on the eve of the American bi-centennial. Hops were somewhat different, he said. But from then on, Our Special Ale recipes varied. Spice as an element was added in 1987. That’s the reason I started to age the beer. A couple of years, I reasoned,would take the edge off the spices and reveal the
fantastic ale beneath.
Spiced beer is an acquired taste and it took me quite a while to appreciate it. Mark and Fritz admitted that it took them some time to learn how to get it right. “It was a bit of an evolution,” Mark said. “Some years there was a spike in spice flavor, others were very round and malty.”
Fritz added that while the spices in each are a closely kept secret, the pundits are wrong. “We’ve never used cloves in our beer,” he said. “Never.” I agree, but what about Grains of Paradise and All Spice?
OK, here we go:
1995***. The oldest of the group, it poured with a towering head of tan foam. It had a spicy nose, taste was mildly malty and both Jay and I thought there was a hint of oxidation, which one can expect to happen over time, just a hint of staleness on the palate. Mark thought this one was a bit thin. Still, for a 13-year-old 5 percent ale, it was very drinkable.
1996.**** Oh, would I ever like to have a couple of dozen of these. A dark brown color, with a slight head of foam and a bit of a licorice, malty nose with perhaps a hint of a medicinal note from, I guess, the spice-hop combination. Taste was quite full and malty. Jay tasted chocolate and so did I. Everyone in the tasting liked this one.
1998**+ . It wasn’t fair to taste this one straight on after the ’96. it was a bit lighter in color with an interesting nose, lots of layers, spice, malt, hops. But the taste just wasn’t as complex as the ’96.
2000***++. The turn of the century Our Special Ale was a dark brown with ruby highlights, it poured with lots of foam and fizz. It had decent body and was very drinkable, running a respectable second to the ’96.
2003***. Not a lot of aroma on this one, a hinte of spice. But the spice roars at you in the mouth. Malt takes a backseat and there was a bit of tingling, tartness remaining on the tongue. Unusual. Excellent.
2004***+. A dark brown with a lovely, half-inch head and a moderately spicy nose. Taste was pleasingly malty with the spice lingering.
2006****. They got it right this year. Lots of malt, restrained spice, some hops. Full taste. This one’s a champion. Hint: If you want to try it, do so now. By Jan. 1., it’s gone.