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Fred's World
Western Holiday Beers Have a Rich History
In England and Northern Europe, strong beers have always been normal fare with holiday meals. These special beers were called festbiers in Germany, Christmas ales in England, and Jule ales in Scandinavia. In the good old days, every brewery made a special beer for the holidays, and some of them were brewed to gravities as high as those our brewers are doing today, i.e., near that of many table wines.

In the 19th century, most U.S. brewers produced a similar special holiday beer. That practice was revived by some post-Prohibition brewers for a while but was mostly discontinued during World War II, with its many restrictions on alcohol production.

Following that war, U.S. breweries, with very few exceptions, ceased producing these special beers. In that era, a few brewers did manage a festive six-pack carrier or a special holiday label for their regular products during the season, but that was it.

San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company was the first to revive the American Christmas beer tradition, when in 1975 owner and Brewmaster Fritz Maytag brewed the first of his annual “Our Special Ale” offerings. The beer’s label read simply, “Our Special Ale, 1975, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” In the early years, this ale was brewed to 1066 gravity (16.5 Plato), 6.4% abv — quite strong for a beer of that era and quite hoppy too. That beer was well received by all who managed to find it. Here in Oregon, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) outlawed ANY beer that carried a “Merry Christmas” greeting on the label, and it was a long time before that austere body came to its senses.

I remember first discovering the Anchor Christmas beer in Seattle in 1977. My journal tells it all: As an Anchor Steam Beer fan, I thought to myself, what can they do to improve on their regular product? Well, in that era, let me tell you what great a surprise it was when I opened that bottle and poured it carefully into a tulip champagne glass: a wonderful lively head unfurled, bursting with tiny bubbles, reminding me of fine old champagne but with a good deal more zing. As the amber liquid filled the glass, I leaned carefully to sniff (not knowing what to expect). WOW! The bouquet was overwhelming and magnificent, totally unexpected. The beer had been dry-hopped! That’s what you do to make a better beer.

Dry-hopping is the addition of highly flavorful hops into the aging tanks to give the beer a very special and hoppy bouquet — a bouquet so nice it tickles your nose. The wonder of dry-hopping is that it does not add extra bitterness to the beer; only the bouquet and the character of the hops are affected.

Bert Grant often carried a vial of hop oil in his pocket, from which he’d add a few drops to whatever peasant beer he had in hand.

Maytag realized that the beer was just too good to be seasonal. Anchor put that ale into regular production as its now-famous Anchor Liberty Ale, but at a lower 14.8 Plato, 6% abv, 54 IBUs. The brewery then introduced a completely new Christmas ale. A darker beer, the new 1983 Anchor Christmas ale (16.5 Plato, 6.4% abv) took fourth place at the Great American Beer Festival of 1984. It has been a popular favorite since then, although the new series is not nearly as delicious as the original.

The new formulation, a darker brew, is different each year, mostly from the herbs and spices added. The bottle sitting in front of me now (1990, which cost me $1.75 at the time) is labeled “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, 1990, Our Special Ale.” The neck label is more specific: “This is the sixteenth special ale from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early December to early January every year; but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. A tree is the ancient sign for winter Solstice, when the earth with its seasons appears born anew.”

By 1981, some holiday ales appeared among craft brewers. Portland’s only microbrewer at that time, Cartwright Brewing, planned a Christmas ale, but it was never released. When that brewery closed at the end of that year, that final brew, born-again Christian Charles Coury’s special Salvation Ale (the beer he had planned to save his brewery) was never marketed. Coury’s last brew was auctioned off at $1 per case to help pay off the county’s personal property tax lien. In truth, that beer turned out to have a strong Belgian character, although Coury had not planned such a delight. The beer tasted Belgian because it had been contaminated by wild yeasts. Salvation Ale tasted very good, in spite of the fact that Coury was a winemaker by trade and didn’t know a great deal about brewing.

In 1982, Sierra Nevada introduced its legendary and now perennial Celebration Ale, a truly wonderful brew at 19 Plato, 6.5% abv and a sturdy 45 IBUs. My notes: “a truly remarkable beer — quite impressive, even exquisite, with a beautiful finish.” As I write THIS, I have just opened a bottle of the 1983 vintage, selected from an unexpected hoard I found down in my own beer cellar! I really did discover a full case of 1983, 1985 and 1986 vintages just last night. This case (with only 23 bottles remaining) was one that I had hidden from myself for, lo, most of these last 25 years. The ’83 cost me $1.29. Its CO2 has been almost completely depleted, as would be expected from a beer that old. It is still an excellent beer, however, and the age didn’t harm it a bit. I would rate it a “95” now, and it turns out that is exactly the same score I gave it in 1983, which I found in my notes from that time!

It was in 1983 that Bert Grant (deceased), then owner and brewmaster of the now-defunct Yakima Brewing Company, brewed a most fascinating holiday beer. Bert Grant was a transplanted Scottish brewer and hop expert who had captured the fancy of Pacific Northwest beer lovers with his many varied and high-quality beers. Grant’s Winter Ale was made from 1080 gravity (19.5 Plato) with special barley malt and some caramel malt (8% abv). The beer also had honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and gingerroot in its formula, plus hops, “lots of [Yakima’s] Galena and Cascade hops,” Grant told me. When Bert Grant told you he puts “lots” of hops in his beer, you had to believe him. He was one of America’s true hop-heads!

Over the years, some of his beers have been called liquid hops. Indeed, Grant often carried a vial of hop oil in his pocket, from which he’d add a few drops to whatever peasant beer he had in hand, including on one occasion Budweiser in the presence of Auggie Busch himself.

Grant’s Winter Ale was a ginger beer (15 Plato and a relatively modest 6.6% abv), which Grant recommended be served warm, microwaved to 115F (46C)! This beer was not released in Oregon that year because of its high alcohol content (over 5% abv) but was later (1986) contract-brewed in Portland by Portland Brewing (now Pyramid Breweries), after our OLCC came to its senses about stronger beers.

For Oregon’s fledgling craft brewing movement, 1985 was a banner year. While 1984 had seen the opening of BridgePort and Widmer brewing companies, it wasn’t until the next year that they flourished. Mike and Brian McMenamin opened our state’s first brewpub, the Hillsdale Brewery, offering a wide array of truly strange brews to folks in that Portland suburb. Widmer was the first local brewery to enter the Christmas sweepstakes, with its Festbier (12,000 gallons at 15 Plato, 30 IBUs, 6.4% abv), and Hart Brewing (later called Pyramid), 30 miles north of Portland in Kalama, Wash., sent down its superb St. Nick’s Special Ale, a dark garnet-colored beer with orange flavor from cardamom, wheat malt, crystal and caramel malts — a relatively low-powered beer at 12.5 Plato and 5% abv.

From Seattle’s Ballard-based Redhook Ale Brewery came Winterhook, at 13.8 Plato and 5.6% abv. Most of the above brews were draft-only, so one had to find a nearby outlet and get a quart jar for takeout. Alternately, one could always buy 1985 Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale by the bottle, and I still have my case of mostly 1980s vintages. All was not lost for the home drinkers, because there was also a fine selection of German, Norwegian and Belgian brews to stand in for the holidays of that era.

 

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