As I write this article, Japanese brewery Sapporo has decided to cease operations at Anchor Brewing Company and liquidate its assets. The full accounting of how we got here after Sapporo bought the venerable company in 2017 is a story we will leave to other publications that have covered it well already. Like many others, my first thoughts when hearing of the closure were with the employees of this historic brewery and then of the legacy that we will all lose with the shutdown.
Nothing will replace a fresh pint of Anchor Steam or Liberty Ale, but as homebrewers we are used to stepping in when we cannot buy the beer we want. The December 2014 BYO cover story I wrote provided clone recipes for several of their classics including Anchor Steam, Liberty, and Old Foghorn, but at the time they were not willing to divulge the recipe for Our Special Ale (also known as Anchor Christmas Ale). When I spoke with longtime but since retired Brewmaster Mark Carpenter he was generous with the details of everything in their lineup except that one beer. The crew considered it a secret to be shared only with the employees who participated in the yearly process of formulating each new batch. Given the latest developments I wanted to see if anyone associated with Anchor would be willing to share more information now so that homebrewers can carry on the tradition of brewing a special holiday ale to share with family and friends.
Thankfully, recent Anchor Brewmaster Scott Ungermann, who took over after Mark Carpenter left and was at the helm for much of the past decade, was willing to share his insights on Our Special Ale. The most important context to realize is that the beer has never been a fixed recipe. Not only did it change from year to year, it changed with the multiple brewings within the year and the brewery blended batches to achieve what they were looking for. Different regions would receive different blends as the beer was sent out into distribution in time for the holidays. So there is no such thing as a single clone recipe for the overall beer or even for a specific year.
With that in mind, I picked Scott’s brain on the consistent elements of the beer and the way the brewers approached varying it every year so that you can brew your own homage and keep the tradition alive. I also crafted a recipe based on his input and he confirmed it is in line with something they would have brewed even if it does not perfectly match any secret recipe they have brewed before.
Brief History of Our Special Ale
Brewed first in 1975, the original Our Special Ale had little in common with the spiced brown ale of today. The beer was originally a vehicle for Anchor to perfect an all-malt, dry-hopped version of Liberty Ale, the original American IPA they had birthed earlier that same year. It showcased Cascade hops and tipped the scales at 6.5% ABV. The brewery continued to tinker with the recipe and brewed it as their Christmas offering until 1983 when it graduated to their full-time lineup as Liberty Ale.
That opened space for Our Special Ale to go in a different direction. The brewery came up with a new recipe evoking the brown ales that brewery owner Fritz Maytag enjoyed on a previous trip to England. From 1983 to 1986, Our Special Ale was an all-malt traditional English brown ale brewed with a combination of pale, caramel, and Munich malts.
In 1987, Maytag was to be married and to celebrate the occasion he and his fiancée decided to brew a unique batch of Our Special Ale in which they each chose a secret ingredient. That “bridale” was so well received that it became the template for years to come. From 1987 onwards, Our Special Ale has been a spiced brown ale with an ever-changing set of secret additions.
The only other major change in the beer’s history came in 2016. Since switching to an English brown ale base in 1983, the beer hovered around 5.5% ABV. While people often cellared the beer, the brewers intended it to be enjoyed fresh or within the first couple of years. In 2016, then Brewmaster Scott Ungermann and team decided to up the ABV to lean into the winter warmer character and give the beer more alcohol to hold up better over time. That year they took the beer to 6.5% ABV but over subsequent years settled into 7% ABV as their ideal target.
Base Recipe Template
Through a discussion with Ungermann and using the information I gathered for the 2014 article, I have put together the template that is used as the starting point for each year’s recipe. For the malt bill, Anchor relies on what is in its grain silos for the major components. Domestic 2-row serves as the base malt and makes up 85% of the fermentables. As is common with most Anchor beers that have specialty malts, crystal 40 makes an appearance to the tune of 5–10%. The balance is made up of roughly equal portions of specialty malts, which the brewers source by the bag from different global maltsters. Briess Midnight Wheat (a bitterless black malt) and chocolate malt were commonly included. Scott emphasized that they were willing to try any dark and complex malt and found favorites that would appear from year to year. Belgian toasted malts were often in the mix.
In composing the malt bill the goal is to hit the target ABV. If you prefer the most recent years’ versions, aim for 7% ABV. If you are a fan of the beers from 1987 through 2015, aim for 5.5% ABV. The inclusion of dark malts like Midnight Wheat and chocolate ensures the beer would be well beyond yellow or amber and into the browns, but there was not a specific color or SRM target in mind.
Anchor used a step-mashing schedule for of all their beers, as you can read about in my earlier article. But it’s safe to substitute a single step at 149 °F (65 °C) for 60 minutes if preferred on your own brew system.
The hopping on the beer is quite simple as it is not a hop-forward style. The two major components are a bittering charge at 60 minutes and a dry hop in the English style. Specialty hops were rarely brought in and instead the team relied on what was on hand for other beers in the lineup. So that meant a combination of Cascade, Nugget, Cluster, or Northern Brewer to get to the target 30–40 IBUs. Something along the lines of 1.25 ounces (35 g) of an English hop like Fuggle would work well for the dry hop.
The yeast is their house ale strain that is used for beers like Liberty and Porter. Those are commercially available as White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) and Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) yeast. Ferment at 67 °F (19 °C).
Over time the maltiness of the beer will increase and the spice character will fade. After going through distribution or cellaring, the beer is likely to be maltier and less spice-forward than what you taste coming out of your fermenter. Keep this in mind as you make adjustments.
The magic in Our Special Ale comes from the special ingredients added at various points in the process. Scott gave me a long list of additions they had tried and guided me towards a few key ones as mainstays. Most were dried and hand ground, though a few came in extracts and essential oils.
Brewers at Anchor tried basically every technique at some point including additions to the mash, to the boil, at knock out, and to the fermented beer in the cellar. The later in the process, the more the character of the ingredient carries through. Early spice additions are subsequently affected by the heat of the boil and the biological process during fermentation. Whereas making additions to the finished beer means you can directly dial in the flavor you want through bench trials and then you can scale up the dose to add to the full batch.
Ground cardamom was a common addition in the mash. It has quite a strong flavor so use a light hand. Ground coriander and bitter orange peel were often added to the boil at a level somewhat less than is common to find in a Belgian wit. Ground cinnamon was less common until recently and would also appear in the boil.
Note that Anchor added a distilling facility in the 1990s, which gave the company ready access to ingredients used in their gins in particular. Think juniper berries, for example, which can be ground and added at the end of the boil or soaked in alcohol and dosed post-ferment to impart a piney resinous character.
Scott let me know that for many years the beer was made with orange flower water added to the tanks in the cellar. This was terribly difficult to source in quantities appropriate for a full batch and they often had to resort to pouring hundreds of small bottles in. The labor and cost ultimately doomed this secret ingredient and it hasn’t been used as far as he knows since they increased the gravity of the beer in 2016.
Vanilla extract was sometimes added directly to the beer in the cellar, adding a fullness and roundness to the beer as well as a slight perception of sweetness. You could also try soaking vanilla beans or adding them at the end of the boil. Vanilla, too, was more common in pre-2016 recipes.
Some ingredients were rarely if ever used. Clove is an ingredient many have guessed was included, but in fact was never directly added. Allspice was added very rarely but apparently the brewers liked it. And one disastrous encounter with frankincense convinced them to never try that again. That said, just because they did not use something does not mean you should leave it out of your toolbox.
Scott said there were always 5–7 special ingredients in the recipe, though not all played a prominent role in the final taste profile. So choose a mix that suits your palate. If you want to experiment you can take a fairly neutral porter and add tinctures made with grain alcohol and your various ingredients to get in the ballpark.
The challenge in providing any specific quantities is that ingredients and brewing processes vary greatly. One batch of juniper berries might contain a higher level of aromatic oils than another, or may have lost its potency during a long storage. Boil vigor and fermenter design can affect how much of an ingredient’s character is lost to the atmosphere. To deal with this, Anchor used rules of thumb and past experience to get in the ballpark and then they brewed multiple batches in a season and adjusted the amounts so the blended result would achieve their goals.
You could certainly do the same to either dilute or increase the impact of any component if you have the time and fermenter space, but remember that in general it is much harder to remove a character from a beer than it is to add more through the use of extracts and tinctures. Consider first brewing with a relatively conservative amount of each special ingredient. That is what I have done with the included recipe. If you do not get the impact you want, try making a tincture with grain alcohol and adding that to the full batch in the fermenter or keg. Or just take notes and make adjustments in next year’s recipe.
After initially announcing that Our Special Ale would be discontinued, in July 2023 Anchor had an extremely limited release of what might be the final batch of the beer. The 49th annual version was served on draft at their taproom in San Francisco and sold in cans but did not go into distribution. As such, it is safe to say that most beer lovers will never get to try this year’s batch.
While the details behind any given year’s recipe remain a closely held secret, hopefully this article has given you a roadmap to brewing your own. If you want to jump right in, give the recipe on this page a try. Or take the information from this article and put together your own secret recipe featuring ingredients only you will know. In any case, please keep the tradition alive and share your special ale with friends and family for years to come.
• Burkhart, D. A. (2022). The Anchor Brewing Story: America’s First Craft Brewery & San Francisco’s original Anchor Steam Beer. Ten Speed Press.
• Weitz, G. (2022, Nov. 4). Anchor Christmas Ale: The ultimate holiday tradition. Hop Culture. www.hopculture.com/anchor-brewing-christmas-ale/
My Special Ale recipe
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.070 FG = 1.017
IBU = 30 SRM = 32 ABV = 7%
12.5 lbs. (5.7 kg) 2-row pale malt
13 oz. (370 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
6 oz. (170 g) chocolate malt
6 oz. (170 g) Briess Midnight Wheat malt
6 oz. (170 g) Special B malt
6 oz. (170 g) Briess Victory® malt
6.8 AAU Northern Brewer hops (60 min.) (0.8 oz./23 g at 8.5% alpha acids)
2.2 AAU Cascade hops (60 min.) (0.4 oz./11 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
1.25 oz. (35 g) Fuggle hops (dry hop)
1⁄2 tsp. ground cardamom (mash)
1⁄4 tsp. ground cinnamon (5 min.)
1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander (5 min.)
1⁄2 tsp. ground juniper berries (5 min.)
1 tsp. bitter orange peel (5 min.)
0.2 oz. (8 g) gypsum (optional if using very low mineral water)
White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V), Wyeast 1272 (American Ale Yeast II), or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Step by Step
Mill grains and mix with cardamom and 5.9 gallons (22.4 L) of 160 °F (71 °C) strike water and optional gypsum to reach a mash temperature of 149 °F (65 °C). Hold this temperature for 60 minutes. Vorlauf until your runnings are clear. Sparge the grains with 1.7 gallons (6.5 L) of 168 °F (76 °C) water and top up if necessary to obtain 6.25 gallons (24 L) of wort.
Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops according to the ingredients list. Add the cinnamon, coriander, juniper berries, and bitter orange peel in the last five minutes. Once you reach an original gravity of 1.070, turn off the heat and chill the wort to slightly below fermentation temperature, about 65 °F (18 °C). If using liquid yeast, aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air before pitching yeast. Ferment at 67 °F (19 °C) for four days. Add dry-hop addition and raise to 72 °F (22 °C) for three days. Once at terminal gravity (approximately seven days total) bottle or keg the beer and carbonate to 2.6 volumes CO2.
Extract with grains version:
Replace the pale malt with 7 lbs. (3.2 kg) extra light dried malt extract. Fill pot with 5.2 gallons (19.7 L) of water and optional gypsum. Place grains and cardamom in a large muslin bag and submerge into the water. Begin heating and when the water reaches 165 °F (74 °C) remove the grains, allowing to drip back into the pot. Turn off heat and stir in the malt extract until completely dissolved. Bring to a boil and boil for 60 minutes, adding hops and spices according to the ingredients list.
After 60 minutes, turn off the heat and chill the wort to slightly below fermentation temperature, about 65 °F (18 °C). Aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air (if using a liquid yeast strain), pitch yeast, and top up fermenter to 5.25 gallons (20 L).
Follow the remainder of the instructions from the all-grain recipe.