When you unwrap a gift, you usually know immediately what it is. But when you pop the top on Anchor Brewing’s Our Special Ale – even when you pour it into a glass – you don’t really know what’s inside. Though the beer has arrived before Christmas for the last four decades, the San Francisco brewery changes the recipe each year and never shares the ingredients.
You know how you would lightly shake a gift when you were a kid in an effort to figure out what was inside? That’s what it’s like to taste this seasonal, spiced ale. You can only venture a guess as to what spices or ingredients the brewers used.
But that’s part of the fun, right? And it’s even more fun when you can sample several different vintages of the beer to compare. Such was the case at Brawley’s Beverage’s new tasting room during a recent event, when Michael Brawley pulled out some aged bottles from his collection during a Christmas party for Cheers Charlotte, a local beer podcast.
Aging beers as you would wine is not uncommon, though it’s typically reserved for big, high-alcohol stouts or barleywines – boozy beers that time might temper. A spiced 5.5 percent beer is not, on the surface, an ideal candidate for aging.
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Be that as it may, Brawley and the Cheers Charlotte crew – Jay Brown, Ford Craven and Cesar Leyva – brought out several bottles of Our Special Ale, some in 12-ounce bottles and others in big, three-liter magnums. Barring a few absent years here and there, the collection spanned from 1996 to 2014.
The Cheers Charlotte guys walked around the shop pouring samples of the earliest bottles first. It was clear that the 1996 vintage was a pretty polarizing beer: one of my friends recoiled at it, another labeled it weird, and still another really enjoyed it. The beer smelled and tasted overwhelmingly of sherry, with sweet notes of molasses. Behind that sweet flavor, though, I was surprised to find that the spiced character of the beer had held up pretty well after all these years.
The 1997 vintage tasted much the same, but that wasn’t true of other consecutive years. A pour from the 2005 bottle yielded a smooth, sweet beer that almost tasted like a spiced cola, and it might have been my favorite of the night. The 2006, on the other hand, offered up bizarre flavors of soy sauce and caramel. Then 2007 brought the spices back, and 2008 presented notes of tobacco and leather.
The oddest aroma of the night, at least to me, came when I detected Heinz 57 in the 2012 vintage. While we don’t know what went into that beer, rest assured it wasn’t Heinz 57. The fun is in the tasting, though, and with Our Special Ale at least you’ll likely never be proven wrong! In an industry where brewers are often happy to share every little detail about ingredients down to the ounce, it’s refreshing to come to a beer with an open mind and a willing palate.
While I personally prefer Anchor Our Special Ale (and most other beers) fresh, it was fascinating to see how the older bottles had fared. If you want to do the same, Brawley’s Beverage still has some bottles from 2006 to present day available for purchase.