Ken Harootunian opens a small, white binder at Anchor Public Taps, Anchor Brewing Company’s San Francisco taproom. Its plastic inserts might once have held trading cards, but today they’re filled with 44 beer labels. Each corresponds to a different vintage of Anchor’s Our Special Ale (more commonly known as Anchor Christmas Ale), and all were lovingly collected and compiled by Harootunian, a longtime friend of the brewery.
This ardent affection for Anchor Christmas Ale is hardly unusual among craft beer traditionalists, many of whom have been buying the once-a-year beer since Anchor’s former owner, Fritz Maytag, first released it decades ago. Even as the beer and the brewery have undergone significant changes—Anchor sold to Sapporo last year, for instance—interest in the Christmas Ale shows no signs of waning.
It helps, perhaps, that Maytag’s enterprising story is embedded deep in the foundations of American beer. To many, he remains “the godfather of craft.” A Stanford grad and heir to the Maytag fortune, Maytag famously rescued the brewery, whose beers he’d regularly enjoyed, when it was on the verge of going under in 1965. After investing in new equipment and expanding Anchor’s capacity, Maytag standardized the recipe for Anchor Steam and released a number of American firsts—the first Porter, the first dry-hopped ale—to consumers.
Ten years later, in 1975, Anchor Christmas Ale followed.
According to Anchor’s historian David Burkhart, the very first Our Special Ale began life as a pale, “tweaked” version of Liberty Ale, which also made its debut in 1975. The two beers were fraternal twins for several years until Anchor, particularly pleased with the 1982 Christmas Ale recipe, opted to bottle and release that as its new Liberty Ale.
But the decision left the brewery with a small quandary. “We didn’t want to release Liberty Ale again [as Christmas Ale], because now Liberty Ale is a full-time, year-round product in the bottle,” Burkhart explains. “So we came up with the idea of doing a Brown Ale.”
The recipe changed again in 1987, the year Maytag married. He was after a special beer with which to celebrate the occasion, and so he took the previous year’s Christmas Ale release and tossed in some holiday spices. “That was so popular at the wedding he decided maybe we should have this new tradition of brewing a Spiced Brown Ale every year,” Burkhart says. It’s been that way ever since, with an undisclosed, ever-changing bill of spices and aromatics known only to Anchor’s brewing staff and management.
“Sometimes people like to guess [what’s in the beer]. Sometimes they’re partly right, usually they’re mostly wrong,” Burkhart says. “Since we’ve been releasing the Brown Ales, it’s difficult to pick out what’s in it. That’s how tradition continued.”
Tradition—not to mention the festive nature of the season—soon dictated one final evolution for the beer: a new format. Inspired by a vintner friend who had gifted him a magnum of Champagne for the holidays, Maytag chose to supersize Christmas Ale’s packaging in 1991. (To this day, Anchor Christmas is bottled in a variety of formats.) His idea was that a larger bottled version would better lend itself to sharing and giving.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Burkhart says of that first magnum run. “We [bottled] 101 of them and we sold half of them on that afternoon’s tour. We instantly saw that popularity.”
Today, the beer is nearly as famed for its artful label as it is its evolving recipe. A novelty in the early days (virtually no other breweries introduced new labels each year), the annually transformed arboreal illustrations served as unique gift wrap for Our Special Ale.
Bay Area artist Jim Stitt has been tasked with illustrating different trees to decorate the label since the 1970s. His style has come to define the beer for many consumers, but it was a gig that Stitt, now in his 90s, almost didn’t get.
In the mid ’70s, Maytag ventured downtown to meet a designer in hopes that he’d be interested in illustrating the label for Anchor’s new Porter. The man was late, so Maytag got to talking with his office mate, Stitt. Maytag took a liking to him, and asked him to take on the label design instead. When the holidays rolled around, Maytag asked Stitt to do the Christmas Ale art, too.
Initially, Maytag planned to work with a different artist for each annual release. His inspiration came from the legendary Château Mouton Rothschild wine estate in Bordeaux, which commissioned world-famous artists to design its labels (including the likes of Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall). The same year that Anchor Christmas Ale was first released, Château Mouton Rothschild had approached Andy Warhol to create its label, a decision that “puts into perspective…where the world was, who was hot, and what was going on in 1975,” Burkhart notes.
A different artist did draw Christmas Ale’s 1976 label, which featured a giant sequoia, but when Christmas arrived the following year, Maytag still hadn’t lined up anyone new. In the end, “he said it was much easier to simply change the tree [on the label] than to engage a new artist...and talk about the tree and the aesthetic,” says Burkhart.
Stitt has drawn the annual label ever since. Even following the Sapporo deal, Stitt and Burkhart still work in tandem. This year, the two drove up to Santa Rosa to find and sketch a Korean Pine—a symbol of peace.
Following its conception, Anchor Christmas Ale gradually grew into an anticipated annual phenomenon. Lines began to form around the block outside the San Francisco brewery in the ‘70s, shortly after the beer debuted, while those who lived elsewhere in California ordered bottles—they referred to it by the adorable and extremely-nascent-craft moniker, “Ale-by-Mail”—after seeing ads (where the beer was sometimes listed as a “wassail”) in newspapers. The beer arrived in the Midwest and on the East Coast in the 1980s, and gradually went international. (It also has a particularly large fanbase in Sweden, which is the first destination for shipments of the beer in August. Company brewers this year were struck by the number of Untappd reviews in Swedish.)
Critics’ early reviews tended to be positive—San Francisco Chronicle wine writer Gerald D. Boyd dubbed Our Special Ale “a delightful quaff that goes well with a wide range of holiday goodies” in 1994—which likely helped stoke initial hype.
Ultimately, Anchor Christmas Ale became more than just a recurring tradition. It turned into a focal point, a reason for small communities of enthusiasts to gather during craft beer’s nascent beginnings.
Greg Hall, founder of Virtue Cider, still remembers his first sighting of Anchor Christmas Ale. It was at a store in Chicago, and he wasn’t yet of age. It was the ’80s, and he was trailing his father, John, who’d go on to open Goose Island Brewing Company a few years later. Greg would eventually serve as Goose Island’s brewmaster.
[Disclosure: GBH’s studio side has worked with Goose Island on various projects over the years, including, most recently, the brewery’s Grit & Grain book.]
“Around Christmastime, [my dad] would pick up Anchor Christmas Ale, which had a Christmas tree on it,” Hall says. “Before I was interested in beer, I was certainly interested in Christmas.”
By the time Hall was brewing at Goose Island in the late ’80s and early ’90s, professional brewers and homebrewers would gather at Sheffield’s, a bar in Chicago that was among the first places in town to procure annual bottles of Christmas Ale, and guess what might be in it.
“It was a big deal to go and drink this beer every year,” Hall says. “It was kind of an industry party. I’m sure we were always way off [on its ingredients], but that was fun too. And then the label changed. Nobody was doing anything like that.”
Today, Hall remains a fan of the beer, and says he has 10 or so different vintages tucked away in his cellar. “The spruce tips and the pine needle, the sappiness—they fit so much with the season and the label and the beer overall,” he says. “That really charms me, when it tastes like a Christmas tree.”
Bobby Gagnon was introduced to Anchor Christmas Ale around the same time as Hall, back in 1986. The Boston native had recently moved to Southern California when someone handed him a bottle at a party.
“I was hooked,” he says. “This is a Christmas tree party in a glass.”
Now, Gagnon owns The Gate, an old-school beer bar in Brooklyn. He’s been pouring Anchor’s Christmas Ale every holiday season since the bar opened in 1997. In its early years, he’d buy a few kegs, and leave one in the cellar to pour the following year.
“Those first few years we did the vertical, I have fond memories of everyone sitting around comparing and making the case for which one they thought was better,” he recalls. “Those first several years were some of my favorites.”
Gagnon’s fandom is rooted in the beer’s novelty every year, as well as its promise of holiday flavors and drinkability. The beer, he says, is “impactful” without bearing a high ABV.
“A few of them is so satisfying, like a dessert you can go nuts on and not feel bad about yourself,” he says. “You have a few Anchor Christmases and you’re in a good, merry place.”
Scott Ungermann, Anchor’s current brewmaster, had his first taste of Christmas Ale several decades before he joined the brewery. It was 1987, and Ungermann was on a brewery tour as a young adult. He had just tasted that year’s Christmas Ale when his tour guide popped a bottle of the 1986 for a side-by-side comparison.
“It was life-changing,” Ungermann remembers. “It was more amazing [than the ’87], and we were more interested. That sparked my interest in this beer a very long time ago.”
Ungermann has been Anchor’s brewmaster since 2016, only the third to hold the position since 1965, following Maytag and longtime Anchor brewer Mark Carpenter. In his role, Ungermann is tasked with conceptualizing the recipe of the beer that served as his guiding light more than 30 years ago. It’s a laborious undertaking, and requires months of development and recipe testing.
Planning for the beer, which starts in the spring, always begins with the previous year’s recipe. Ungermann and Anchor’s other brewers meet to review the recipe and discuss what they might want to remove or add to it. When they reach some consensus, they brew a pilot batch on a small system set up inside Anchor Public Taps.
“We start early, because we know that if we want to make changes, we have to conceptualize those changes,” Ungermann says. “We brew a prototype in April, taste it in May, and if we like it, we have to order ingredients in May to June because we have to brew in July, because we have to package in August to ship to Europe. You have to start early to plan things if you’re going to make something new and different every year.”
For 2018, Ungermann opted to look both to the past and the future. Anchor has gradually increased the Christmas Ale’s ABV over the last several years (which makes it better suited for barrel-aging), taking it from the mid-5% range to 6.9% this year. Ungermann also aimed to “echo” the label’s tree—the Korean pine—in the beer, which is something that’s become “an important part” of the process.
For those who have been drinking it for decades, like Ungermann, the 2018 version of the beer might nevertheless taste a little bit familiar. “This year’s Christmas Ale is a throwback to the Christmas Ales of my youth,” he says. “The 1980s Christmas Ales that had less spice, less dark malts, and [were] more of a brown ale with a specific spice note. A few of us really liked the concept of having a throwback, but amped up.”
Including the brewers, managers, and one accountant on staff, only about 15 people know what’s in the beer each year. Recipe secrecy is another major tenet of its legacy, but it does have a downside. Anchor didn’t keep meticulous records of its Christmas Ale over the years. In fact, brewers didn’t input any recipes into a database until 2010.
Most of the Christmas Ale recipes from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are “all handwritten records in these old-school cardboard bankers boxes,” Ungermann says. However, since every year’s recipe begins with the previous iteration in mind, it’s unlikely that the brewery is repeating past vintages.
“Certainly over the last 20-plus years, what we’ve done has been not been wildly different each year, but different enough that there’s no way we stepped upon [the same recipe],” he says. “We’re never using frankincense again, we know that.”
Back at Anchor Public Taps, Harootunian—the man with the white binder—is reminiscing about his first experiences of Anchor’s Christmas Ale. In the ’90s, while working at a now-defunct brewery in San Francisco, he struck up a friendship with current Anchor staff brewer Kevin West. Eventually, Harootunian was invited along to Anchor’s holiday party, held “for their suppliers, people who made the bottles, printed the labels—[it was for] everybody who helped them get the product out there as opposed to currying favor,” he says. In addition to the beer labels, Harootunian kept those paper invites, but says they’re too precious to store in his binder.
The parties were a Christmas tradition that lasted from 1983-2014, ending with the release of the 40th Christmas Ale, according to Burkhart. Recalling the events, Harootunian says Maytag “spared no expense,” and would select a caterer based on cultural associations with whichever tree had been put on the label that year. “Typical Fritz thing,” Harootunian laughs.
Harootunian isn’t the only admirer who gravitates to the brewery. Magnums from the ’00s, and even as far back as the ’90s, frequently make their way back to Anchor, usually when longtime collectors decide to share them with Anchor staffers. It happens often, Ungermann says, especially around Christmas.
“Last year, a guy brought in a 2010 magnum,” Ungermann says. “He was super excited, and said ‘I want to taste this with you guys.’ That’s an amazing feeling: Someone held on to this for eight years and brought it back to its place of origin to taste it with the people who made it.”
Ultimately, the beer has become a quintessential seasonal signifier. For drinkers all over the country (and even further afield), it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
“Success has a million fathers,” Burkhart says. “But in the case of Christmas Ale, Fritz has to be given a lot of credit for blazing a new trail in this country. It’s been a tradition that’s been one of our longest and most meaningful.”