Ungermann is the San Francisco Brewery’s brewmaster and has had a hand in crafting the company’s annual, secretive Christmas ale for the past few years. He’ll talk about certain notes of barley, or a chocolate scent here and there, but each year’s full recipe is only known by a few people at Anchor. The beer makers have been turning out a different Christmas brew, with a new tree-featuring label since 1975 and this year’s is a truly tasty, sturdy ale that would indeed pair well with a big ol’ holiday meal. It’s also the booziest one they’ve ever made at 6.7 percent ABV.
Ungermann phoned from his office in San Francisco directly after evaluating some hops for a new pale ale the brewery will be releasing next year, to talk about the history of the Anchor Christmas beer, the best places to enjoy one, and the intense process of whipping up a new recipe every year.
What is Christmas Ale’s history?
Anchor has been making it since 1975. It went so well they decided to do another in ’76 with a new recipe and label with a different tree on it. We’re now on our 43rd one and everything is kind of the same from a concept point. The tree is symbolic of the spirit of giving, we’re making something you can share with others. It’s a festive beer that is great for sharing or turning into a gift. As brewers, we hold it in extremely high regard.
When did you start working it?
I came to Anchor in 2014 after being a fan for many years. I toured the brewery when I was in college in the 80s. I was thinking the other day, I have this distinct memory of turning 21, my birthday is in January, and I drank some Christmas Ales. But, in 2014 I started in April and Mark Carpenter, the previous brewmaster, within my first week mentioned getting started on the Christmas Ale. So, it’s quite the process.
It’s crucial to get a big head start because the first brew for this ale happens in August. We have to get approvals and stamens of process that contain things other than malts and barley and hops, there’s always going to be some interesting other ingredients in there. Everything has to be approved and sourced and of course, we have to create a recipe that actually tastes good.
How did that go the first year you were involved in the creation?
I was on the sidelines just learning the whole development cycle. The hops, barley, etc… It was more about seeing how everyone goes. Then of course having to keep it super secret.
So who knows the recipe each year?
Only a few brewers in the building know each year’s recipe and only a select few actually develop it. Every year we get some unusual ingredients in there. It’s always just so fun to play around with ingredients we wouldn’t always use and creating something special that people will actually enjoy.
With that level of secrecy and the deep history of the Christmas Ale, do you feel an extra pressure to create something special?
I think there is a pressure to make it better. There’s the realization that you’re continuing this legacy of making excellent beers. Not necessarily that this is better than the last, you do always want that, but it’s just that it has to fit in this legacy and be true to the concept of making a big, beautiful beer that is suitable for a festive occasion. It should pair well with food and be delicious.
We never want to go too over the top. We want a beer that people feel comfortable busting out during a meal.
What’s the deal with the different tree each year on the label?
That decision is actually a bit of a secret to me. The tree is chosen by Dave Burkart. He’s worked here for twenty plus years. In addition to being the person who develops packaging and many other things he is also the brewery’s historian. He has his mind wrapped all around the things that have happened in the many decades of Anchor and uses that knowledge to choose a tree each year.
We have never used a part of the tree in a brew. Next year we have designs on doing something like that. I think that’s super cool that that’s part of the story that is yet to be written.
The trees are always local to California and Jim Stitt is the artist behind each year’s drawing. He’s been doing it for years and it’s so important as part of the overall experience.
Break down this year’s Christmas ale for me.
The last two years I have driven the creative process for the Christmas ale—myself and a small group of four us. We work on the recipe and are completely collaborative. We suggest ideas and taste and come to agreement on them. Our goal from 2015 onward has been to strip away layers of spices to be more distinct. We want to increase the maltiness and flavors from specialty malts we bring in. Also in the last two years we’ve increased the alcohol level. Historically it’s been 5.5 percent and in 2016 we went up to 6.5 percent.
This year’s Christmas ale has a little more dark roasted chocolate maltiness and a little less piny spiciness. It delivers a more direct spice note from us using fewer spices. It also sits at 6.7 percent ABV. It’s a smaller increase but we figure we’ll go up year after year and find that sweet spot. This year’s has definitely been well received. It’s got a complex, aromatic nose but it’s not overwhelming. I haven’t had any with food yet but I will open one during the Thanksgiving feast next week. Very stoked for that.
Where do you think the best place to enjoy a Christmas Ale is? At a holiday dinner table? Watching sports in the garage with your uncle on Thanksgiving afternoon?
Those work! For me, the magnum bottle, I’ll bust one out at Thanksgiving dinner. I’m a dark meat, turkey leg kind of guy and this beer will pair great with a turkey leg and mashed potatoes. It would be nice to have one fireside or perfect out in the garage watching some football. It’s also a good desert beer. Put it right next to a pumpkin pie. Outstanding!