December 12, 2006

From Beer to Eternity: Merry Christmas Ale

Once upon a time, “Christmas beer” meant the same aluminum-clad Bud Light as always, just niftily wrapped in a different colored cardboard container and with an insincere card from the Busch dynasty attached.Familiar, reassuring, cold, never bitter … and as boring as the fruitcake that once symbolized yuletide horror for generations of celebrants. ’Tis a blessing that two decades of beer and brewing revolution have provided fresh holiday alternatives, some of which honor long wintertime-brewing traditions, while others are as new as the very notion, still elusive in parts of America, that beer with flavor isn’t at all a bad thing.The annual release of Samuel Smith Winter Welcome testifies to the decades-old English practice of brewing stronger-than-usual ale for cold weather. Even so, it is by no means over-the-top. The nose is pure Yorkshire, the body medium to full, and the flavor smooth and elegantly fruity. Have a Stella Artois first, then Winter Welcome, and learn the difference between lager and ale.  A few hours south of the backcountry locale that in 1976 spawned the late New Albion, America’s original microbrewery, lies lovely and trendsetting San Francisco, where Fritz Maytag had rescued the comatose Anchor Brewing Company during LBJ’s administration, and by the mid-1970s was well on his way toward placing himself squarely on craft brewing’s Mt. Rushmore. The year 2006 marks the 32nd annual release of Anchor Christmas Ale, its 32nd different recipe, and — yes — the 32nd different tree on the label. Understandably, it’s a tad different every year, but generally dark in color, bursting with character and boasting a flash of something that might be spruce, might be licorice or might be a figment of my imagination. Like those good tidings from the Busch family.Roger A. Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. He writes about beer for Food & Dining magazine. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.