Seasonal ales spice up the holidays

Believe it or not, there are some thirsty souls in this world who take in the strings of colored lights, the dangling snowflakes and overdressed fir trees and do not think of Christmas morning. They hear the strains of “Good King Wenceslas” or “The Wassail Song” and are not filled with good cheer.

Seasonal ales: A Dec. 23 article on seasonal ales referred to the Anchor Brewing Co. as the Anchor Steam Brewery. —

Instead, they are overcome by Pavlovian symptoms -- dilated pupils, wetted lips, excessive Homer-like salivation. They gather snack bowls. They frost steins. They stand in the kitchen gazing expectantly at refrigerators, fondling bottle openers with a discreet lasciviousness.

December, after all, is the season of seasonal ales, when some of the richest, most enchanting bottlings of the year reach the market, heady, potent, dark-malted brews laced with exotic spices. No, that’s not a sugar plum fairy dancing in that guy’s head, it’s a nut-brown, triple-hopped, pine-spiced pumpkin ale with a nice creamy head in a chilled glass.

From fairly modest beginnings, the seasonal ale movement is now a full-blown phenomenon among artisanal brewers. More than 100 U.S. breweries make a holiday beer or ale, and another 40 are imported annually, according to the website For lovers of the tall and frosty, few holiday seasons are complete without a sampling.

Seasonal ales, of course, have been with us almost as long as seasons. In Europe, brewing was essentially a home activity through the Middle Ages, and beer was made according to the seasonal ingredients at hand. As breweries became quasi-commercial enterprises, in monasteries, convents and eventually conventional breweries, special brews were crafted in concert with the calendar, and monks, being monks, commemorated saints’ days and other religious holidays.

Of course, few occasions were more special than Christmas, and the brews made in honor of the birth of Christ were appropriately lavish, employing imported spices like cinnamon from Sri Lanka, allspice from the Antilles, cloves and cassia from Indonesia, mace and nutmeg from the Moluccas, as well as such local flavorings as juniper berries, bay laurel and pine.

Wassail, the punch-like concoction that inspires such voluble door-to-door reveling, was often some version of these. It was customary to invite the carolers in for a cup of cheer -- as good a reason as any to sing your head off in the street.

In this country, seasonal brews traditionally were usually produced only for small regional distribution, special lots from small breweries such as Walter’s in Eau Claire, Wis.; Ballantine’s in Newark, N.J.; and the Falstaff Brewery of St. Louis, a special brew that seems foreordained, since its namesake bore such a close physical resemblance to a certain yuletide figure.

Maytag’s method

The modern artisanal Christmas ale is the invention of Fritz Maytag, the owner of Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco. Maytag started experimenting with small-lot brews in the mid-'70s during the off-brewing months when he had the tank capacity, eventually selling these special winter brews as the label’s Special Ale -- usually with a season’s greeting on the label and displaying a single tree, printed in green though not always of the evergreen variety.

Eventually Maytag started adding autumnal herbs and spices, fine-tuning the elements until a fully seasonal expression became the standard -- warm, dark, with a robust flavor profile that never fails to signify the season.

Despite an ardent following, Anchor Steam has never divulged its recipe -- and it changes every year as Maytag and his staff tinker with the base ingredients, spices, alcohol strengths and the sources of its hops. To taste it, it’s easy to divine certain elements -- ginger, evergreen, nutmeg, perhaps mocha -- while others are elusive. Maytag does admit that the recipe has never involved clove, to its credit.

Anchor also redesigns the label annually, based on a different living, actual tree. This year’s is a magnificently rotund cedar found at the east entrance of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a tree that most city residents will recognize, if for no other reason than that it’s strung with lights each holiday season. It is the park’s Christmas tree.

In the 34 years since, retail shelves have become quite crowded with seasonal beers. Indeed, they seem to proliferate like vodkas, except that with beer, the defining factor isn’t a flavor, it’s a season. It’s become commonplace for a brewery to create half a dozen seasonal brews year-round to complement its regular bottlings.

Like many modern brews, these are prone to particularly bad punning behavior and other shameful wordplay, owing in part to how easily the word “Happy” morphs into “Hoppy,” as in Marin Brewing Co.'s bottling, Hoppy Holidaze. (Not to be outdone, the He’Brew Brewing Co., now in its bar mitzvah year, calls its date-flavored Hanukkah brew “Jew-balation.”)

The season also inspires the annual creation of a league of misbehaving elves: the Mad Elf, the Bad Elf and the Rude Elf Reserve are all causing mischief at a store near you.

Christmas beers tend to be richer and heavier than your average brew, with a bigger mouth-feel and a hoppier finish. They are often darker in color and usually employ more deeply roasted, caramelized malt preparations, which enhance the perceived sweetness of the ale. Strictly speaking, most winter brews are not thirst-quenchers but, like a lot of the holiday meals they accompany, are weighty, opulent and satisfying.

Much beyond this, all bets are off. Setting aside lagers, seasonal brews are of every conceivable style, from every country, region and brewing tradition.

There are dry, clean brews, like the fruity, almost pear-like delicacy of Goose Island’s Christmas Ale or deceptively light Two Below from New Belgium (who bring you Fat Tire Ale). Sam Adams produces a Winter Ale that’s hoppy, clean, fairly dry and herbaceous, while Sierra Nevada’s perennial Celebration Ale has a slightly richer mouth-feel than its classic ale, with a subtle pine finish. The Winter Solstice Ale from Anderson Valley Brewing is an amber, but a rich one, with just a hint of cinnamon, while the aforementioned Hoppy Holidaze from Marin Brewing has a satisfying malty core that gives it drive and power.

Many more, however, are of the spiced variety, and despite proud assertions of their flavorings, I found most of these brews to be wonderfully subtle and ephemeral.

Pepper and potatoes

I didn’t think, for example, that the Pumpkin Ale from Buffalo Bill was all that pumpkin-y, but it was plenty savory and satisfying. The 2009 Allagash Belgian-style “Fluxus,” from Maine, is flavored with sweet potatoes and black pepper. I won’t say I detected either, but with its citrusy nose, flavors of savory malt and comforting weight, it was one of my favorites.

And I was unprepared for the depth of flavor in the Jubilation Ale from the Japanese brewery Baird -- Japanese ales, after all, are often dry and light. But this one, flavored with figs and cinnamon, was uncommonly heady and powerful. Delirium’s Noël had a similar richness, with a malty tang accenting flavors of nutmeg and dried cocoa, while Corsendonk’s Christmas Ale seemed darker still, as if someone had dropped in a shot of espresso.

This year, however, the darkest of all is Anchor Steam’s Special Holiday Ale, a brooding concoction displaying notes of juniper, ginger and allspice, grounded by a fine savory note that reminded me of Mexican chocolate. It is the sort of beer to snatch up and savor, remembering that the seasonal ale season, just like Christmas, comes on quickly and is gone before you know it.