This year marks the 44th release of Anchor Brewery’s iconic Christmas Ale. Each year Anchor releases a new recipe and an original hand-drawn label to boot. Discovering and decoding the taste of each year’s brew is a very merry tradition for any true beer lover. We reached out to Scott Ungermann, Anchor’s Brewmaster, to see if he would dish out the details of the 2018 recipe. Spoiler alert – the festive formula is still safe with his ironclad silence.
ABC: First, let’s learn a little about you and your journey with Anchor. What drew you into becoming a Brewmaster?
SCOTT UNGERMANN: I first became interested in beer while attending high school in Europe. This interest continued to grow while in college at UC Berkeley in the late 80’s. During this time, I had my first tour at the Anchor Brewery and became a home-brewer shortly thereafter. It was a fun hobby, but I never considered a career in brewing until after I graduated and heard about the Brewing Program at UC Davis. I then studied brewing at UC Davis with the singular focus of getting into the brewing industry.
After graduation, my wife’s job led us to New Jersey where I landed my first job at Anheuser-Busch brewery. After 12 years and 3 different breweries with A-B I finally became a Brewmaster in Fairfield, CA. In 2014, I had the opportunity to come back to Anchor and eventually became Brewmaster here.
Jumping right into it… regarding Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale, why craft a different recipe every year? What started this tradition?
In 1975, Anchor released the first holiday beer in America since Prohibition. Anchor has a long, storied history of innovation; Fritz Maytag brewed the first modern American Porter in the early ‘70’s and the first dry-hopped American Pale Ale, Liberty Ale, in 1975. Christmas Ale is one of the many beers we’ve pioneered. It has gained worldwide recognition over the decades, and the evolving recipe is a promise that fans can expect something new each year. One aspect has always remained the same: Christmas Ale represents joy for the changing seasons and celebration of the newness of life.
How has Christmas Ale evolved since 1975? Any particular reason the alcohol-level started increasing in 2016?
We do bring something new and interesting to this traditional holiday beer each year while maintaining its signature style. Each year we begin with last year’s recipe, and then we make decisions about what we want to take out, what we want to leave in, and what we want to add in that is new. Then we start brewing pilot batches, and tasting, and re-brewing, etc… Over the last few years, we’ve raised the ABV in Christmas Ale from 5.5% to 6.9%. People enjoy this holiday tradition year after year in vertical tastings, so with a higher ABV, Christmas Ale can age gracefully for years to come.
We know the recipe is hush-hush, but what can you tell us about this year’s recipe?
The recipe is a closely guarded secret, but I can tell you that 2018 Christmas Ale complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and strong aromas of resinous pine. Some years have more spices than others, this year’s recipe has a very singular and focused spice note that will age very nicely.
Who is let in on the secret recipe? How many people?
Only the brewers & the QA folks know the whole recipe, but of course we had to let someone in accounting know…
What is your favorite pairing with this year’s Christmas Ale? Is there a particular Christmas meal this ale goes best with?
Sweet potato pie is the winner for me. Most pies pair well with Christmas Ale, for that matter. We also suggest roasted turkey and braised root vegetables with it. Many Christmas Ale fans claim the beer can be a dessert on its own.
Can you tell us a little about the hand-drawn labels?
The hand-drawn packaging of Christmas Ale is ever changing, displaying a different tree year over year. We’ve kept the same Anchor illustrator since 1975, Jim Stitt. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. Jim created a Korean Pine Tree on the 2018 label. Native to both North and South Korea, the Korean Pine Tree is a symbol of peace and a reminder of the spirit of the season. It flourishes in the scenic botanical gardens real close to the brewery, just north of San Francisco.
Do you have a favorite year where you think Anchor perfected the recipe?
For me, 1986 was an outstanding year for this beer. When I first came here in the fall of ’87 we got to taste the new 1987 Christmas Ale and it was a delightful experience. As a bonus tasting at the end, the tour guide brought out some ’86 Christmas Ale for us to taste and it was beyond magical. The beer had aged very nicely and had of course never left the brewery. We bought a case of each and brought them back to Berkeley. I savored those beers with my buddies over a couple weeks and the consensus among us was that the ’86 was a better brew. That story is, like all beer memories from the distant past, clouded with nostalgia and not necessarily accurate from a flavor standpoint.
That is part of the beauty of Christmas Ale – the memory is as important as the beer. We had a fan bring some “found” 1986 Christmas Ale back to the brewery in 2016. While this beer ages well, it does not age that well. The 30-year-old beer was only a shadow of its former self – the memory cannot be re-created. The short answer to the question above is that perfection cannot be attained, but that’s why we keep trying every year.
Is there pressure to create a better brew each year?
Yes, there is pressure. Mostly it is pressure we put upon ourselves, but there is pressure from the outside as well. People expect a lot from this beer, and we get it. This is a holiday beer – we serve it to our friends and family, we have it with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, and almost every day in between. People give it for gifts, they share it, they pop it to celebrate. So, yes, the pressure is there, and that is why we try so hard to make it a different (and better) experience every year.
How long is the process of crafting the new Christmas Ale each year? Have you already started to think about next year’s recipe?
We have just recently brewed our last batch of this year’s Christmas Ale, and we are already thinking about next year. We listen to feedback, we taste it ourselves, we formulate our opinions, and then we wait for the holidays to pass before we really start taking on the process of crafting a new recipe. We will brew the first pilot brews in March and taste them in April and then start ordering ingredients in May so that we can start brewing in July and we start it all over again.