Anchor Our Special Ale

Review Date 6/2/2000  Last Updated  11/10/2019  By John Staradumsky


I remember my very first bottle of this beer as clearly as if Iíd tasted it yesterday. I can only say that about a few of the very many I have tasted over the years, but perhaps more than any, this is true of Anchorís Our Special Ale. . This was a beer I had been seeking for a long time, ever since seeing Michael Jackson's classic Beer Hunter series in the late eighties, where the beer was so reverently mentioned. Imagine my excitement, then, when I spotted a sole bottle of the 1991 brew in a liquor store in Waltham, Massachusetts, back in 1992. I was in heaven! A Beer Quest ô had been fulfilled! Since then, I have been able to find this beer every holiday season, and it just wouldn't be Christmas without it. I usually save a few bottles for the next year to compare with the new batch, and I'm sipping one of those saved bottles tonight. This beer holds up well with time.

Anchor Our Special Ale has traditionally been released right before Thanksgiving. On 11/25/1999 I wrote:

I did score some great stuff this morning though:
Tremont Winter
Brooklyn Black Chocolate
Harpoon Winter Warmer
Anchor OSA ($11.50! Ouch!)
Saranac Sampler (with the new Wee Heavy and Kolsch)
Fuller's Old Winter

Tomorrow it's off to Philly to my father's for dinner, the Greylodge later in the day, and the beer distributor to bring home several cases Friday.

This is Anchor's 25th bottling of Our Special Ale. Though the recipe changes slightly each year, the brew always has a heady, rich and toasty, spicy character to it. I pour the beer into a beautiful 1996 Our Special Ale glass, complete with gold rim and a white logo that doesn't really show up until you pour in the ale. As usual, it has a rich dark color with a creamy enticing head and a huge spicy, spruce-smelling nose. There's plenty of roasty-nutty character here, chocolate, espresso, ginger, nutmeg. Lots of spice against a very malty body, this is the quintessential beer of winter for me. Eggnog of beers if you will. If you enjoy spiced Christmas beers, this is the one that started it all.

UPDATE: December 18, 2000: Here I am sipping yet another yearís brew of 200 Anchorís Our Special Ale. As always, this is an incredibly spicy, roasty brew. If the holidays could be condensed into a bottle, they would be Anchor Our Special Ale. If a Christmas tree could be stuffed into a glass, it would be a glass of Our Special Ale. Spruce beers were famous in colonial times, and though even the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future couldnít get the recipe for this beer out of good old Fritz Maytag, a whiff of the piney nose will remind you so much of a freshly cut Christmas Tree youíll know this beer is seasoned with spruce.

Anchor features a different tree upon the label of this beer each year. This year there are two. The celebration of life through the decoration of a tree goes back to the old German ritual of the Tannenbaum, which is today the Christmas tree. Anchor explains the trees that adorn the labels of Our Special Ale thusly:

This is the twenty-sixth Special Ale from the brewerís at Anchor. It is sold only from late November to early January. The aleís recipe is different every year, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same. Joy and celebration of the newness of life. In ancient times trees symbolized the winter solstice, when the earth with its seasons appears born anew.

Eggnog, pine, spices, chocolate, orange, ginger, presents, good cheer, and carols all rolled into one. If you try but one Holiday brew, this must be the one!

Update, 2001:  OSA 2001: Once again, Our Special Ale is a little different than the year before. This yearís label features a Washingtonia Filifera, an odd-looking palm type tree. The beer is dark brown in color with a medium creamy tan head and a spicy eggnog nose. The palate is rich and spicy with a hint of chocolate, a big ginger presence, a little roastiness and a dry, slightly grassy hop finish. A little thinner in body than in years past but still a delicious holiday treat. A gingerbread man in a glass.

Update,  2003: OSA 2003: Here we are more than a week before Thanksgiving, and I'm sampling a glass of the twenty-ninth batch of Anchor Brewing Company's annual Christmas ale. What can you expect for 2003? The same over-the-top bold and flavorful brew that has been a hallmark for beer enthusiasts for decades.

This year, Our Special Ale pours to a dark brownish black color with a very thick and creamy tan head and a roasty toasty chocolate ginger nose. The palate is full and chocolatey with notes of cinnamon toast, eggnog, espresso, chocolate, ginger, orange, and spruce. The finish seems less hoppy than last year with more of an emphasis on the chocolate and a dry roasty (but not overpowering) bitterness.

Yes, Christmas is here again.

Update, 2004 : Don't be afraid to sock a few bottles of OSA away, either. I like to do just that and compare it from year to year. Here it is, a week from Christmas 2004 and I've just cracked my last bottle of the 2003. I'm still getting that big eggnog nose, and it's plenty spicy with ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Every bit as good as it was a year ago, but it may have softened slightly and is reminiscent of fresh baked gingerbread.

Update, 2005: Like last year, I'm a bit late to the party and reviewing an aged bottle. It's October as I type but my OSA 2004 at almost a year old is truly wonderful. Spicy notes of pine and ginger have mellowed a little, and I get some clove and a delightful, soft bittersweet chocolate flavor. The chocolate seems more pronounced than it was last year. Overall, the flavors from year to year seem to remain pretty much the same. It's the proportions that change.

Update, 2006: Once again, Iím late to the party with the 2005 OSA, but thatís OK, because this is a beer that ages well for a few years at the very least. Iíve kept my last few bottles in the DBR the whole year long, and Iím getting some interesting chocolate notes that seem to have intensified rather than abated. Nutty malt notes, spruce, and grassy herbal hops are present too along with nutmeg and ginger.

For the past few years, Iíve usually allowed my OSA to age a bit before commenting on it. Pretty much that hasnít mattered, because even though the beer is a little different each year, itís not really that different. For the 2006 OSA, Iím going to comment straightaway. Mainly, thatís because this year seems to be markedly thinner than in the past.

After cleansing the palate with a few crackers, I found a thinner body than the 2005 had. Chocolate is still very apparent, but the spruce and ginger reduced as well. Itís still there, of course, and there is still some spice, too (nutmeg and cinnamon come to mind), but just not as much as in the past. Still, the chocolate roastiness increases in the finish, leaving notes of rich dark chocolate on the tongue. Maybe a 1/2 notch down from past years, but still a fantastic beer any way you pour it.

Update, 2007: OSA 2007  This year's brew is, as usual, a treat. The nose is toasty and chocolaty and hints at the wonderful flavors to follow. Fresh baked gingerbread, piny spruce, chocolate and orange. Hints of spicy nutmeg and vanilla are very present, too. As wonderful in July, too, as it was in December.

Update, 2010: OSA 2008 Every year I love to do a Christmas in July beer event, and this year (2010) I had a special treat: a bottle of Anchor Our Special Ale, 2008 vintage. With almost two years of age, the spicy ginger and nutmeg have mellowed only slightly, and the pine, chocolate, and toasted nuts still impress. Only the citrus seems to have disappeared.

Update, November 26, 2011: So there I was sitting at my local Taco Mac, Thanksgiving night 2011 to be exact. I was sipping a 2011 Our Special Ale (notes to follow) It came with a really cool and free OSA glass; did I say bonus? Anyway, a couple of folks were talking about the fact there was a keg of 2009 OSA ensconced somewhere in the back, "Aha," I said. "I have a bottle of that aging in my DBR back home." And I did, until I popped it tonight. Lovely notes of gingerbread, cinnamon, nutmeg, hazelnut, and a subtle hint of pine. I have to say this is one of the best beer experiences on the planet.

Update, July 25 2012 : Fitting, my friends, that I'm popping a bottle of the 2011 OSA tonight, the official Christmas in July. Looks like I've skipped over the 2010 edition, though I know I've a bottle of it ensconced somewhere. Will be interesting to try it with a year and a half to two years on it. But now for the 2011 notes I promised back at Thanksgiving. Big chocolate and gingerbread nose here with a wonderful note of spruce. More of those things in the palate, the chocolate, the fresh gingerbread man cookie flavors, piney spruce, more nutmeg than cinnamon this year, cardamom, orange citrus, and toasted nuts. OSA is said to change slightly from year to year, and I think if there is a difference to the 2011 I think it might be more of a grassy, herbal hop bitterness in the finish. Absolutely wonderful as per usual.

Update 12/4/2013: Toasty, nutty, piney spruce, gingerbread base, spicy nutmeg, roasty, fruity. Amazing. Bite a gingerbread man off a Christmas tree, and take a bit of the branch with you....that's a start in describing this year's edition of Our Special Ale!

Update 11/27/2015: 2015 OSA is in at Taco Mac! This beer is exceptional this year, better than its been in years I think and that is saying something! I have a six-pack at home but have been waiting for Thanksgiving to try it. It's really robust and bursting with spice this year. More expensive than ever at $13.99 a six-pack and $6.50 draft, but certainly worth it in my opinion.

Update 12/30/2015: Special Our Special Ale tasting! Tonight I've joined the one and only Beer Whisperer, Tom Mulvihill for a special tasting of four years of OSA: 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. I've also picked up a few new OSA glasses this year off Ebay (they release a new one each year with the beer). I sipped the 2015 first to use as a baseline. As mentioned above it's bolder, packed with gingerbread and eggnog and sprucey piney notes, nutmeg and cinnamon in the aroma and the palate, but chocolaty too and in your face with flavor.

Next I tried the 2014 at its first birthday. A lot less robust in the nose, that's the first thing that you notice. You still get that gingerbread, but more of a chocolate chip cookie character. I get the ginger and piney spruce. It's still remarkably good, perhaps less robust than the 2015 but still with a beautiful bittersweet dark chocolate flavor.

On to the 2013. Like the 2014, this one is softer in the nose than the 2015, but it does have more gingerbread there. In the palate, too the gingerbread and spice are quite lively indeed. The beer is smooth and chocolaty with maybe a hint of raisin developing from the aging. The spruce has subsided a bit and the beer is less dry and more smooth in the finish.

Lastly, the 2012: it's amazing how well this is preserved. Soft gingerbread and piney spruce, a little thinner in body than the other 3 but that's not a function of the aging. Pine, dry nutmeg in the finish, luscious dark chocolate in the palate, this beer is a delicious glass of Christmas past.

From the neck label of the 2014:

This is the fortieth annual "Our Special Ale" from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale's recipe is different every year, as is the tree on the label, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. 

Update 11/25/2017: I'm here with a 2017 Anchor Our Special Ale, which is significant because this is the first edition since Anchor was acquired by Japan's Sapporo brewery. Anchor Our Special Ale 2017 features  chocolate and soft gingerbread in the nose, more of the same with a hint of piney spruce in the palate. The beer is less spicy than in years past, I think, and a little more chocolaty, but still wonderful indeed. Back down to $11.99 a six-pack, a Christmas present in itself.

Update 11/25/2018: Anchor OSA 2018 pours to a dark brown color with a thick creamy tan head and a an herbal oregano and lemongrass nose with a hint of spruce twigs. Taking a sip, the beer has a medium maltiness with soft brown ale notes but lacks the gingerbread cookie notes I am accustomed too. The spruce and pine are almost gone, the holiday spices completely so-what happened here? Herbal Lemongrass. Not festive at all. This is a tasty winter warmer, but a radical departure from the classic Our Special Ale I am used to. Very disappointed!

Update 12/20/2018: Although I was disappointed with the 2018 edition of Anchor Our Special Ale, one of the highlights of this holiday season still revolved around this classic brew. I scored a bottle of 1988 OSA on Ebay which the seller had cellared. My notes: Aged 30years....raisin and prune dominate the nose and palate, hints of gingerbread and pine poke through in the latter. Amazing how good this still is!

Update 7/28/2018: Christmas in July with Anchor Our Special Ale 2018. It's drinking wonderfully in July, with deep malty flavors and dark fruity raisin in the nose and the palate, spice cake and perfumey hops, cookie malts, and a balancing bitter finish. It's a lovely winter warmer, and I think the shock of it being so different from the annual release has worn off. The beer has always been gently tweaked from year to year; but this is a radical departure. I think that jaded my view of the beer and with time I am able to be a little more fair to it.

Update 11/10/2019: The 2018 with a year of age. I like this much better the more I drink it. Last year, the shock of how different it was from all the ghosts of OSAs past was too much for me. Time

allows perspective, and the smooth nutty malts, soft chocolate and grassy herbal bitterness in the finish calm the soul better in the fall of 2019 than they did in the winter of 2018. I picked up a 1998

 OSA glass over the year, 20 years of history may have helped? Looking forward to what 2019 OSA holds forth....

Update 11/27/2020: Lots of news this year! In middle November in preparation for the season, I popped a bottle of Anchor Our Special Ale 2014. It drank wonderfully in 2020. Chocolate, gingerbread, nutmeg, fragrant spruce, raisins and mince pie. Delightful! A 2019 was also on the agenda, and it was a marked improvement on the 2018. Darker and spicier with the usual spices of nutmeg, cinnamon, and perhaps ginger with hints of pine and rosemary. I did enjoy it last year, and into July for my Christmas in July beer drinking. At the end of December of 2019 I sampled a 1981 bought on Ebay. Years ago I drank a 1984 bought off Ebay; last year a 1988 obtained the  same way was remarkably well preserved. This year the 1981 was interesting with dark fruit notes but had off flavors that only allowed me to drink about half. Still, another year added to my resume! The highlight for the 2020 season, though, has been this year's edition. In this, the year of Covid, I was distressed that I might not find any, so I took a ride very early one Wednesday morning, the week before Thanksgiving. The usual large display of Our Special Ale was not to be found, but they did have a few cases of six-packs, and I bought one for $11.99. It is good that I did, for another early morning jaunt on Black Friday did not find any at all at two different Total Wine locations, and a Sherlocks. I did buy a 1.5L bottle though for $18.99. I liked the beer this year that much. 

This is the forty-sixth Christmas Ale from Anchor Brewing. It is, also, the 30th straight year I have celebrated the holidays with this beer. The very first ever I enjoyed was purchased in a liquor store in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1991. To this day, I can still recall peering with delight through cooler doors and seeing it there. This year, it is darker in color than in the past few years. The nose is richer, full with clove and chocolate. There is chocolate and fresh pine in the nose.  Taking a sip, the beer is full in body with the clove and ginger that the nose promised, gingerbread, cinnamon, and nutmeg. cardamom, rosemary. Chocolate. Ginger. Twiggy spruce. Just a wonderful cornucopia of flavors!The beer is dry spicy in the finish and just wonderful, the best it has been in many, many years. It's also a bit stronger at 7% alcohol by volume. 2020 has been the year of suck, but at least with Anchor Our Special Ale 2020, there is hope for a brighter future. 

From the 2020 neck label:

This is the forty-sixth annual "Our Special Ale" from the brewers at Anchor. This ale, made with natural flavors, features a different recipe and tree every year, but the intent with which we offer it is the same: joy and celebration of the newness life. Trees symbolize the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew. The Three Graces (represneting radiance, joy & flowering) are giant sequoias -what John Muir called "columns of sunshine"-in California's Mariposa Grove. Their synergistic beauty is awe-inspiring.

Update 12/25/2020: It has been a strange year indeed. Popping my magnum of the delightful 2020 Our Special Ale, however, has very much brightened the holiday. I cannot recall when I last enjoyed a magnum of this beer, but it has been over 20 years. Here's to a new tradition at Christmastime.


Glad I tried it?  T

Would I rebuy it??


*Pricing data accurate at time of review or latest update. For reference only, based on actual price paid by reviewer.

(B)=Bottled, Canned