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Santa's Acrophobia

A Vertical Tasting Of Anchor Christmas Ale
Styles & Seasonals December 19, 2002      
Written by pivo


Anchor is one of our favorite breweries. With a fantastic history and, above all, great tasting beer, it stands as a pillar of excellence in the American micro-brew scene - a standard to measure other breweries by. The brewers at Anchor consistently churn out some of the world’s best beers. Their offerings range from a light summer beer to an aggressive IPA to a powerful barleywine.

Against this backdrop of consistency is a tradition of variation: their special Christmas ales. Each year the recipe of spices and herbs changes, and each year we have something new to look forward to. Thanks to Joe Veehoff (Arnoud), this year was particularly exceptional: we had the pleasure of tasting 5 years of Anchor Christmas Ale side by side.

A vertical tasting of Anchor Christmas Ale is different than other vertical tastings. We weren’t comparing how a single beer aged with time, rather how the brewer’s recipe and intent varied over the years. We are glad to be able to share our experience with the RateBeer.com community.

The event was hosted by Joe (Arnoud) and Shelley Veehoff, in Hawthorne, NJ. In addition to us (pivo and Yogi_Beera), some non-RateBeer.com friends and beer lovers joined in: Brian and Wendy Reiss, Erika Kerber, Jonathan Spitz, Janet Ortega and Hank. For those without prior beer rating experience, we had plenty of RateBeer rating sheets handy. This was a great way to funnel feedback from the whole group.

Also note that we invited Fritz Maytag, founder and owner of the Anchor brewery. We didn’t get a response from him. Unfortunately, Venom and User-Experience, who were also invited, couldn’t make it either. [use_x: I’m there for the next Anchor tour!]

At about 8 pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2002 we cracked open the first magnum of Anchor Christmas Ale. It was a fun night from there on out.

<img src="/images/features/anchor_tasting.jpg">
The jury: (from right) Yogi_Beera, Wendy and Brian Reiss, Joe Veehoff (Arnoud)

Five magnums of Anchor Christmas Ale we stored in a cool, dark closest for their respective life spans. They were all chilled in the refrigerator for about two days before the event and were allowed to warm up a little before opening.

The years tasted were 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

<img src="/images/features/anchor_xmas_ales.jpg">
The five vintages sampled

Each beer was tasted and rated individually at first, with enough of each left over to do a side-by-side sampling later. Pivo was the only one to take a blind, side-by-side taste test, but was able to correctly identify only 2 of the 5 vintages.

We used to the RateBeer scale to evaluate the beer collectively. After the initial sips and tasting notes for each, we discussed the beer as a group. The scores and ratings varied for sure, and the numbers below represent an approximate average of all scores.

Aroma: 9, Appearance: 5, Flavor: 8, Palette: 4, Overall: 17, Total: 4.3

This vintage starts with a sweet, port-like nose with hints of cloves. A big frothy head sits atop an opaque brown, almost black body. A complex blend of spices (cloves, nutmeg, ginger) bonds well with a fruity, malty ale base. It turns slightly sour in the middle, but this was not disturbing. It resounds with a long, pepper-embellished finish. Overall this has a luscious, full flavor with a very long profile and a big warm mouth feel with sweet round edges. This was a favorite of many that night.

Aroma: 8, Appearance: 5, Flavor: 7, Palette: 3, Overall: 15, Total: 3.8

This nose of spices (nutmeg) and chocolate is a little more perfumy than the 1997. The main flavor profile is not as strongly spiced, but distinct nut-like notes come through in the middle with a hint of chocolate in the swallow. It concludes with a bitter, crisp finish that was slightly astringent. This is noticeably thinner and not as full or complex at the other years.

Aroma: 8, Appearance: 5, Flavor: 8, Palette: 4, Overall: 16, Total: 4.1

The Anchor Christmas Ales certainly remind one of Christmas from the nose: like cookies, cakes and candies common to the season. The 2000 hinted at allspice and recalled sour chocolate milk a little. Again, we find a big frothy head and a dark brown body. Tastes of cloves, licorice and chocolate lurk behind a heavy ale body in this vintage. A quick, but sharp spiced bitterness (nutmeg) on the tip of the tongue brings the flavors to an end. This was also thinner and had less character than 1997.

Aroma: 7, Appearance: 5, Flavor: 7, Palette: 3, Overall: 15, Total: 3.7

The aroma here is perfumy, almost medicinal. A suggestion of clove is buried deep within a rich, spicy flavor that is laced with hints of chocolate. A certain sourness became apparent about mid-glass. Also thinner and clearer in texture, this year had a creamy mouth feel. Though enjoyable by all means, this was the least favorite of some.

Aroma: 8, Appearance: 5, Flavor: 8, Palette: 4, Overall: 17, Total: 4.2

A fresh, spice-inspired hop nose with hints of chocolate greets you with this vintage. The main flavors are again spice dominated, with hints of licorice and even pine. A thick body fills the mouth instantly and offers a creamy feel. The taste recalls ginger bread. This ale had the most distinct hop finish of all them. It was also a favorite of some.

Though each brew uses a different recipe, there were some similarities across these Anchor Christmas ales. Commonalities between the years include:<UL><LI>Appearance. All were about the same opaque-brown to black color with a frothy tan head.<LI>Aroma. Though not identical, all were similar: spiked with nutmeg and other Chritsmasy spices.<LI>Taste Direction. There was a definite consistency in the basic flavor profile. Like the aroma, a spicy flavor seemed to predominate. Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and similar spices were the blended with a dark, malty, full-bodied ale. <LI>Alcohol. One sensed the alcohol in these brews, but it played a supportive rather than primary role. </UL>

The main differences we noticed between the vintages included:<UL><LI>Spice Accents. Clearly the type and amount of spice flavors varied from year to year. The difference in spices was noticeable even to the non-RateBeer tasters. The 1997 had more cinnamon and nutmeg than the middle years (1999, 2000, 2001), which leaned towards chocolate, licorice and coffee. The 2002 had the clearest hop character contributing to the pine-like tastes. <LI>Body. Some vintages were definitely thicker than others. The 1999 and the 2001 appeared to be the thinnest of all. The 1997 and 2002 had a big, full ale base that the spices rode on. <LI>Finish. This was also a key difference across the vintages. The finish of the 1997 was long and warm, as with the 2002. In contrast, the 1999 ended rather abrupt and was astringent. The other two years were somewhere in between.</UL>

<img src="/images/features/drink_eat.jpg">
The party continued after the "official" tasting...

We made some conclusions and other random observations at the end of the evening and the next day:<UL><LI>The 2002 was not the worst vintage.<LI>Pregnant women (Wendy) who did not drink thought the 1997 smelled the best.<LI>Favorite beers varied to extremes: one person’s favorite was another’s least favorite, and vice-versa.</UL>

Finally, the oldest - 1997 - was favored by many and may have benefited from putting it down for so long. This was the mellowest and perhaps best balanced. However, the 2002 was also an excellent brew and favored by many. In the end, the jury is still out as to whether aging Anchor Christmas improves the quality of the beer or not.

In case you are wondering why we didn’t sample the 1998, Arnoud is saving his only magnum for another vertical tasting of 10 vintages planned for 2006. Maybe then we’ll be able to conclusively say if the aging helped or not.

Prost and Happy Holidays!

Pivo and Yogi_Beera


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start quote A fresh, spice-inspired hop nose with hints of chocolate greets you with this vintage. The main flavors are again spice dominated, with hints of licorice and even pine. end quote