Anchor Brewing (CA)
Style: Winter Warmer
I wish I had such a good memory that I could just compare beer from year to year based on what I remember of it. But I don't, and I don't have any old bottles of Anchor Christmas Special Ale sitting around. Sorry. I do know that in 2009, I thought this beer was fantastic, and last year I thought it was pretty good, but not quite as good as what I remembered.
The recipe changes from year to year — and who knows how much it changes. So between your own changing tastes, and the brewer's changing tastes, Anchor's Special Christmas Ale might vary between "great" and "pretty good." I don't think you're risking anything beyond that.
I'm happy to report that this year, it's fantastic.
I'm usually not a big fan of winter warmer's, but this is one of the genre's best. Smooth, malty without being sweet, dark and roasty without being harsh, Anchor Christmas is perfectly balanced — not balanced as in "bland," but balanced in that a number of flavors all shine through while working in sync, none overpowering the others. At the forefront is the spruce; piney, very mildly bitter and dry, it makes this beer exceptional. This is a malty beer, to be sure, but there's no distinct, specific malt flavor that dominates, and it's dry enough to dodge cloying sweetness completely. A subtle roasty grain flavor comes out in a pleasant way. There are other spices at work, but it's not easy to pick any one of them out — some ginger probably, maybe a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon. Anchor Christmas 2011 is like shoving your grandma's oven full of warm cookies and an Evergreen tree (minus decorations) into a tiny bottle of wintery awesomeness. The mouthfeel is smooth, clean, with an almost buttery character, and a hint of maple. This drinks like a treat without lingering like one.
So, I like this beer a lot.
Sidenote: I had this on tap a few days before reviewing it in bottle, and it wasn't nearly as good. It lacked the subtle, spruce flavor that won me over in the bottled version. Kind of odd, but I'll assume other bottles will be just as good.
Availability: Released every year around the beginning of November, should be around until January. Fairly common in most stores. Sold in sixpacks.