A Guide to Zymurgical Cheer
by SCCB Blogger
I look forward to the ales available at this time of year — dark, roasty, full of earthy flavors that the hazys of summer wouldn’t give a second thought. In this post we feature just a few of the most worthy ales you can find this holiday season.
The BEST Holiday Ale, IMHO
Anchor Brewing’s Merry Christmas & Happy New Year Ale
I just love this brewery. It has a storied history that goes back to the 19th century and includes the early revival of independent craft brewing when Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III purchased the failing brewery in 1965. Maytag is sometimes called “the father of modern microbreweries.”
Growing up, “Anchor Steam” was the only beer I was aware they made. It wasn’t until I got serious about craft beer a decade or so ago that I discovered Anchor’s unique holiday tradition: every year a new recipe and a new tree. This year’s brew is their 48th, honoring Mary Ellen Pleasant, “the mother of civil rights in California.” The pioneering African-American entrepreneur and abolitionist planted several eucalyptus (aka “Blue Gum”) trees at her home on Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter in San Francisco. Pleasant’s home no longer exists, but the gum trees remain as part of “the smallest public park in San Francisco.”
It’s not surprising then that Anchor Brewing’s website identifies eucalyptus as one of the notes that graces the ale’s 2022 flavor profile. The others are orange, honeysuckle, and toasted malts, all nestled among “botanicals and pleasantly herbaceous hops.” Did we mention that the holiday ale recipe is a closely guarded secret? That’s why they don’t tell you which botanicals or hops they use — unlike The Original Bombay Dry Gin, which used to have pictures of their botanicals on the side of the bottle.
My palate is not what I would like it to be, but in addition to the eucalyptus notes and toasted malts, I discern juniper and possibly coriander as part of the botanical profile — which is why I mentioned gin in the previous paragraph. According to Ivano Tonutti, Bombay’s Master of Botanicals (where was a job like this when I filled out that occupational questionnaire back in high school?), juniper, coriander, orris, and citrus are the four building blocks of gin. Monks in the early Middle Ages, guided by the writings of Greek and Islamic scholars, learned the techniques of distilling — for medicinal purposes, of course — that led not only to gin, but also Belgian brewing.
So. Monks, spirits, and the holidays. Oh my!
By the way, everything you ever wanted to know about Anchor’s Special Holiday Ale can be found at Hop Culture’s in-depth, well-researched post by Grace Weitz, Anchor Christmas Ale: The Ultimate Holiday Tradition. Before we move on, I should mention that Anchor Brewing was “acquired” by Sapporo Breweries in 2017. For details on another major Sapporo acquisition, see our own BeachRock Bill’s July 2022 post, “Sayonara Stone Brewing.”
Other Ales Worthy of Your Consideration
Founded in 2016 by film industry veteran Patrick Dunn, his wife Laura, and his mentor and father (not named on the company website), Burbank, CA brewery Lincoln Beer Company really elevated their game this year. Especially with their “Railsplitter” Red Ale, a 2022 Silver Medal winner at both the Great American and San Diego International Beer Festivals. We were pleasantly surprised by the holiday worthiness of this brew, which features “a healthy malt presence, a sprinkle of roast, a touch of sweet, and a clean finish” (that’s according to the company website).
As you can see from the accompanying photo, the color is closer to stout than many red ales, and the flavor trends that way, as well. We poured this can into our Mahou glass — a gift of our compadre LSD Luke from back when we lived in Madrid — in homage to BeachRock Bill’s recent sojourn to the Costa Brava.
Railsplitter was the perfect beer for Thanksgiving leftovers, pairing wonderfully with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, and orange-peel-infused cranberry sauce.
Last I checked, Railsplitter is still available at Trader Joe’s and no doubt at other fine establishments catering to your craft beer needs, as well.
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome
As “the Old Brewery Tadcaster” tells you right on the bottle AND their website, “This seasonal beer is a limited edition brewed for the short days and long nights of winter. The full body resulting from fermentation in ‘stone Yorkshire squares’ and the luxurious malt character, which will appeal to a broad range of drinkers, is balanced against whole-dried Fuggle and Golding hops with nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire.”
You’ll note the darkness in the fireplace behind the accompanying photo. We’ve since rectified that situation and can attest personally to the truth of the above statement. As you’ll see, the brew has more of a traditional ale color, which belies its richness and character. Don’t know what Fuggle hops are (“aromas include mild, wood, grass, and mint“), but I’m sure Frodo used them in The Lord of the Rings. Maybe he used stone Yorkshire squares, too.
It’s also touching that this year’s Winter Ale from the Old Brewery Tadcaster serves as a tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking her as the longest-reigning British Monarch.
We enjoyed this ale with a hearty arroz con Pollo y gambas which I cooked with a heavy dose of saffron, coriander, and orange peel from the Valencia oranges that grow in my backyard. I deglazed the pan with a Spanish sherry, which sang a lovely duet with Samuel Smith’s Winter Ale.
Fun Fact: Did you know that “sherry” is the British colonial way of pronouncing Jerez (“he-reth”)?
This Belgian Farmhouse style ale is the gold standard of late autumn celebration pairing ales, in my opinion. It goes so well with anything roasted, toasted, mulled, baked, braised, and simmered for hours.
A word of clarification: farmhouse ales like the Dupont are traditionally brewed in winter and served to farmworkers in summer. In Southern California, where this blog originates, summer often lasts into and through the holidays. At the moment, it’s 69 degrees in my neck of the woods — the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. This is in contrast to the 36-degree temperature currently in Connecticut, where relatives are currently boarding a plane to spend the holidays with us in the Land of Eternal Sunshine.
A word of caution: look at the freshness date on the beer you buy! Eleanor and I committed the cardinal sin of omitting to check the date on the bottle of Saison Dupont featured in the photo to the left. After sniffing the beer and taking an exploratory taste or two, neither Eleanor nor I was sure that it tasted how we remembered it. “The expiration date!” cried Eleanor. So, we combed the bottle label and eventually discovered the notation, “Best Enjoyed by June 2016.” “Holy moly! That was six years ago!” I exclaimed.
As we kept tasting, we kept thinking, “Well, it wasn’t what we expected, but it’s not bad, exactly. In fact, it’s interesting!” So, I declared, with all the confidence of a man who often talks through his hat, that probably Saison Dupont was the type of ale that continued fermenting in the bottle. I’d heard of such a thing, and presented as Fact.
Not long after, I ordered a Saison Dupont on draft at a place that still devotes a tap to such out of fashion beers and admitted to Eleanor, “Okay, this is what that beer is supposed to taste like.”
From all of us at the So Cal Craft Beer Blog, feliz navidad, prosper año nuevo, joyeux noel, Happy Hanukkah, peace and blessings of the winter solstice, and best wishes for a delightful and delicious season of merriment!
— Chauncey B, the So Cal Craft Beer Blogger
2 thoughts on “Happy Holiday Ale!”
Great post. It made me thirsty and hungry at the same time.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Love a post about delicious beers which also introduces me to new words, like, zymurgical. Great word for the game Dictionary. Except now we all know what it means. Chauncey, you’re a winner!