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Comparing Anchor's 2009 and 2010 Christmas Ales

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Now that we're into December, Christmas beers, winter warmers and other special seasonals are showing up in stores and beer joints. It is truly the most wonderful time of the year if you're a beer lover, and year after year, Anchor Christmas Ale, also sometimes called "Our Special Ale" (and abbreviated to OSA by beer nerds), is one of the biggest reasons.

Now in its 36th year of the tradition, the brewery changes the recipe each year, though in recent years (as far back as I've been drinking it, at least) it has been a winter warmer flavored with a secret blend of spices. Last year, I put away a few bottles of the 2009 ale to compare with future versions to see just how different they are from year to year, as well as how aging would affect the beer.

I was expecting to notice some variation between the two vintages, but the degree of difference was quite surprising.

The distinction was evident before even taking a whiff, in fact, with the newer version pouring a much thicker, longer-lasting head. More subtle was the difference in the way they looked; both were a deep brownish-red, but the 2010 glass looked to be just a barely perceptible shade darker ruby color when held up to a light.

Neither would be mistaken for a porter, but the newer version had a tad more roasty charred notes to the nose and taste as well, and a slightly fuller, more mouth-coating body. Not surprisingly, the piney hops and piquant herbs and spices were sharper in the newer version. As I learned at a Dogfish Head vertical tasting last year, aging beers tends to impart musky and caramel flavors to a beer and mellow out the hops and other sharper flavors resulting in a generally sweeter, sometimes syrupy flavor. This was certainly true of the nose on the 2009 version -- the caramel notes were more pronounced, with the spices fading to the background in the nose.

The mysterious, complex nature of this beer makes trying to discern all the flavors a fun annual drinking tradition. For this year's, I would guess the added flavors include juniper and perhaps a hint of ginger along with the more common Christmas-associated cinnamon, nutmeg and clove flavors. Last year's has more of that slightly waxy flavor that I seem to pick up on, which always reminds me of Chap-Stick. Maybe coriander? I've also always wondered if the tree featured on the label (which varies each year) offers any clues to the ingredients. Last year's tree was a Monterey cypress, which isn't edible as far as I can tell, though this year's featured ginkgo biloba has some culinary uses along with its well-documented medicinal qualities.

Oddly, though, the newer version actually tasted sweeter to me while the older one smelled sweeter. My wife, on the other hand, thought the aged version tasted far sweeter. "It reminds me of last year's, but doesn't taste like last year's," is how she summed it up. I'd agree, and add that it is also reminiscent of this year's but doesn't taste like this year's.

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