Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale is the king of seasonal sips

The back story : ‘Tis the season for seasonal brews. Christmas-themed beers have a history going back a few centuries, according to Julia Herz, a program director of the Brewers Association, a trade group. (You’ve heard of mulled wine? Back in the day, Englishmen enjoyed mulled beer, says Herz.) Craft brewers have done much of the holiday cheering of late, and Herz believes it’s a key reason why the fourth quarter has been the biggest annual sales period for the craft market over the last five years. Just as noteworthy may be the fact that almost anything qualifies as a “Christmas” beer these days: A 2013 survey by the Brewers Association found more than 60 examples of such holiday brews, including a porter infused from chili peppers, a stout flavored with maple syrup and a wheat beer gone bananas (literally—the fruit is part of the recipe).

Still, if there’s a beer that got the holiday bandwagon rolling, it’s San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, a drink that’s in the classic mold of a seasonal sip. Which is to say, it’s got the hearty spicing associated with a winter brew—“complex” is how Anchor brewmaster Mark Carpenter describes it. The company has been releasing the holiday beer since 1975, tweaking the recipe every year to give each something of an individual identity. (The company refuses, however, to provide details about what goes into the beer, which has arguably added to ale’s mystique and popularity.) But it’s not merely about what goes in the bottle: Anchor also makes a big deal of the label, which depicts a Christmas tree, hand-drawn by California artist James Stitt. And just as the beer recipe changes from year to year, so does the tree: In 2013, it’s a California White Fir, whose “pyramidal form makes it the ideal Christmas tree,” according to the Anchor folks.

What we think about it : This is a big, bold and thoroughly delicious ale, with lots of fruitcake-y spicing and yet a clean finish. (In other words, it not quite as heavy in the mouth as all those hints of molasses, nutmeg, raisins and such suggest.) At 5.5% alcohol by volume, the dark-hued ale has a bit more of a kick than your everyday brew, but it doesn’t get into the headstrong territory of, say, an 8% beer. Which means you can partake of another sip (or two).

How to enjoy it : If you can find the beer in its magnum bottling, it’s worth going that route, especially for a Christmas party. Nothing says “Season’s Greetings” quite like the beer equivalent of a Big Gulp.

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