Meriwether Lewis sat down to draw a pinecone. It was February 18, 1806, a Tuesday, and Lewis and his travel companion, William Clark, were in what is today Oregon, guided on their cross-country journey by a young Sacagawea. Another travel companion had brought Lewis back a pinecone and other specimens. Lewis is thorough if a bit soporific in his description of the “specemine,” but he was sure it was from a new kind of pine tree. He called it “No. 7.” The small drawing of a pinecone tilted on its side looks, well, like a pinecone. That it turned out to be a Sitka spruce, which Lewis had already described in his journal two weeks earlier, was just part of navigating a new world. 

More than 197 years after Lewis drew that lanky pinecone, the sketch again drew some public attention. This time it adorned the quaint, attractive off-white label on the neck of a squat brown bottle of beer from California. The Sitka spruce, known by its latin name Picea sitchensis, was the featured tree on the 29th annual Our Special Ale from America’s oldest craft brewery, Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. 

Sold from early November to January, Our Special Ale (sometimes called Anchor Christmas Ale or OSA) is one of the country’s longest running seasonal beers. It has a hallowed place in the pantheon of American beer history. It is storied, celebrated, and beloved. 

And now it is gone.

Earlier this week, Dave Infante of the Fingers Substack newsletter, scooped that Anchor’s current corporate parent, Sapporo Holdings, planned to not brew a batch of Our Special Ale for this year. Infante also revealed that Anchor planned to scale its distribution back to its home state of California. This news sent shockwaves through American craft beer circles. Many lamented the loss of Our Special Ale and castigated Sapporo for gutting this historic brand and tradition. 

Dusting Off Old Bottles

The news led me to take a dusty old bottle out of the back of my beer fridge and finally pop the cap. That 29th annual Our Special Ale bearing Lewis’s drawing isn’t a recent release. It was the 2003 version of Our Special Ale, the one dedicated to the Sitka spruce, which was featured on the striking main labels faithfully drawn every year by artist Jim Stitt. 

Due to the well-intended if overly optimistic advice of an earlier generation of beer writers, I have a cellar filled with old bottles like Our Special Ale, Bigfoot Barleywine, and other similar titans of that era. 

They largely just sit forgotten until moments like these. So I grabbed the squat bottle and immediately noticed its heft, a little gravitas perhaps, but there’s something to it. The bottle emits a tiny little ‘whoosh’ as the cap bends in a perfect half, dissecting the anchor dead down the middle and separating the brand’s signature words trade and mark. 

And there it is. 

The familiar aroma of rich soy sauce mixed with pine, the unmistakable one-two punch of this challenging beer. The recipe for Our Special Ale may change a little every year, but to my nose, the beer always smells this way. 

Twenty years after it was bottled, this 2003 Our Special Ale pours near still, the product of so long in the bottle. You can blame Jackson, blame Eckhardt, blame Beaumont and other older beer writers for the travesty of encouraging us to drink beers so far past their primes. But the experience is a cheap form of entertainment if you have the patience for it.

Age has clearly taken its toll. The carbonation all but gone, leaving a slightly flimsy and out of shape version of its former self. It pours with a deep black shine with flecks of ruby around the edges. The beer is medium bodied with kicks of pepperiness followed by a round of dark roasted malts, before embarking on an extended flirtation with pine notes, in both aroma and flavor. 

Anchor Our Special Ale
Anchor Our Special Ale

There’s an absolutely impenetrable layer of black soot coating the bottom of the bottle but even a robust pour gives off no sediment. With no sweetness and very little bitterness, the beer remains in an unsettling state of balance. 

Our Special Ale is really just sort of a weird, piney porter.

Aged Our Special Ale is often a shell of its former self but even fresh the beer is an anachronism. While it may be one of America’s oldest seasonal beers, OSA’s countenance and character could not be further out of touch with what Americans want to drink. It’s not hazy, or boozy, not hoppy or cloying, it’s not even a clean, boring pilsner. 

Our Special Ale has always been a bizarre beer. It was never particularly popular but it had tradition, pedigree, history and therefore loomed large in American craft beer. 

Our Special Ale debuted long before many of us started drinking beer. It’s a beer propped up by nostalgia, like a slightly disagreeable prince, detached from the realities of modern life, but noble and royal nonetheless. And much like the concept of monarchies, Anchor Our Special Ale probably long ago outlived its utility. 

Anchor Our Special Ale had a good, long run. Perhaps the best run in the history of seasonal beer in America. But it’s a beer without an audience. There’s no target demographic for it, no place it thrives except in the mind palace of beer geeks.

Our Special Ale and its discontinuation exist for us the way a once favorite restaurant in our hometown does. If the place finally closes, we’ll always share great, maybe even formative memories. But in reality, we probably haven’t been back there in decades.

A Historical Brand In Search Of Its Future

Anchor is a brand deep in struggle to find its place and even relevance in the modern craft beer scene, as has been the case for many of its peers. 

Founded in 1896, Anchor and its famous Steam Beer have long stood as icons in San Francisco culture. Its story is lore. In 1965, a young Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag appliance company and son of the inventor of Maytag Blue Cheese, sat down on a bar stool in the Old Spaghetti Factory in the city’s Italian neighborhood of North Beach. While enjoying a pint of Anchor Steam, Maytag learned from the bartender that the brewery was closing. Maytag enjoyed telling people that it was love at first sight when he visited Anchor. 

He quickly bought a controlling share for five thousand dollars. Four years later, he bought the rest of the brewery and spent the next several decades building Anchor into a nationally known brand. But the Maytag era would eventually end, and so began Anchor’s decline.

In early 2010, Maytag sold the brewery to the Griffin Group, an investment and consulting company focused on beverage alcohol brands, which set about modernizing the brand. Rebranded as Anchor Brewers & Distillers, LLC, the company designed fresh new labels and released new beers, often far from the brewery’s traditional and established identity. Production at the company continued to decrease as the new owners attempted to re-establish the brand’s identity in an increasingly crowded and young marketplace. 

In 2017, Griffin Group sold Anchor to Sapporo Breweries, the Japanese brewing giant. 

Anchor of course continues to release new beers, including a West Coast India Pale Ale and a reduced calorie hazy IPA called Easy Weekend. It chases trends as many larger breweries do but beyond its heritage, Anchor has struggled to redefine itself for a new generation of craft beer drinkers whose palates and attention are drawn elsewhere. 

To modern beer drinkers, beers like Our Special Ale and even Steam appear as out of date as the byzantine Julian date coding system the brewery inexplicably still uses on its bottles (30791338 means the year (3), day of the year (79th), and time of day in military time (1338) the beer was packaged).

The Necessity Of Change

Our reaction to the loss of Our Special Ale probably tells us more about ourselves than it does about this particular beer. 

We’re living in an era where old gods are getting slaughtered on the regular to make way for the new gods. We’ve seen generation-defining flagships disappear. Boston Lager is no longer Boston Lager. Fat Tire is no longer Fat Tire. And that is discomfiting for many beer drinkers. 

It feels like we’ve lost something, and we have. But instead of mourning the passing of these beers, we should remember and be thankful for them. Just as Newsweek is no longer Newsweek and Journey is no longer Journey, change happens. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But change comes, always. 

We’re entering a new era of craft beer and that is exciting. Craft beer has long thrived on change, iteration, constant vibration towards the future. Craft beer needs change. We shouldn’t be afraid to kill our idols or at least watch them peacefully pass. 

Cheers to Our Special Ale.