In November 1975, the Anchor Brewing Co. released what it called, simply, “Our Special Ale.” The beer quickly became known by two other things on the label: a generic Christmas tree smack-dab in the center and the words, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
Anchor’s seasonal in 1975, the first seasonal from an American brewery since Prohibition, marked the advent of the modern Christmas beer in the United States, those thicker, richer, seemingly obligatory concoctions that flood retailer shelves ‘round about the week before Thanksgiving. Anchor originally based that first one on an earlier 1975 release called Liberty Ale, an immensely influential, hoppier beer that became a standalone brand for the second time in 1983.
After 1975, Anchor would regularly tweak both its Christmas ale recipe and label. The 2014 release, the brewery’s 40th straight Christmas ale, features a Sequoiadendron giganteum tree (a.k.a. giant redwood) and tastes, as most Anchor Christmas Ales have since the late 1980s, of spices such as nutmeg and cloves. Though those are only guesses: the recipes remain closely guarded secrets. The earliest Anchor Christmas Ales were decidedly hoppier, and less malty.
As important as it has been, Anchor’s Christmas beer was not the first American-made one. Which was? Hard to say.
That distinction might lay with the old Barmann Brewery in Kingston, NY, about 90 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. The brewery, started by a Bavarian immigrant with the perfect name of Peter Barmann, released what it called “Salvator” around 1915. Packaging for the lager described it as a “Special Christmas Beer,” one “made months ago from rich malted barley, life-giving hops and grain, deep-rock spring water, filtered and boiled, and put through our perfect system of Pasteurization.”
Others followed, especially after repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The Miller Brewing Co. out of Milwaukee had its “Christmas Special Beer” in the mid-1930s, complete with a Norman Rockwell-esque label of a family around a roaring fire, Christmas tree lighted and full pilsner glasses at the ready. The old Ballantine, too, had Christmas beer, beginning perhaps as early as the mid-1940s; according to the label, however, it was “not for sale,” but rather to provide “Christmas Greetings from” top executives to special supporters and associates of the brewery.
Government grinches soon stole much of this Yuletide thunder.
“A few years after Prohibition, most states banned references to Christmas or Santa Claus, so you saw a lot of ‘Holiday’ ales that I’d guess were called Christmas beer before Prohibition,” said Don Russell in an email. Russell is the author of Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Holiday Brews and a longtime beer critic under the nom de plume Joe Sixpack (hat tip as well to the critic Jay Brooks for information for this column).
Russell cited beers such as Tannenbaum Beer from Wisconsin’s Marathon City Brewing and Xmas Brew from Becker Brewing and Malting Co. out of Wyoming as examples of this end-around. Other breweries continued to be more direct. The West Bend Brewing Co., also out of Wisconsin, produced its Lithia Christmas Beer into the 1950s; the beer seems to have survived into the 1970s, in fact, after West Bend joined the Walter Brewing Co. in Eau Claire.
None, though, would prove as definitely influential as that first Our Special Ale from Anchor 40 years ago this season.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.