(Anchor Brewing)

Our Special Ale, from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, debuted in 1975 as a hoppy offering that eventually became the brewery's Liberty Ale. Since 1987, it has been a spiced ale in the tradition of the wassail bowl of yore, growing progressively darker as the brewers upped the amount of highly roasted specialty malts.

Former brewery owner Fritz Maytag liked to call Our Special Ale “a moving target,” because the combination of spices and botanicals differs each year. (The malt bill and hops also change.) Although the brewery has become more open about its beer formulas since Maytag sold it to The Griffin Group in 2010, the recipe for Our Special Ale will remain a secret, assures longtime brewmaster Mark Carpenter

Guessing the spices has become an annual ritual among beer geeks. “Fritz always said, ‘You can go ahead and tell your friends and then the fun’s over,’ ” Carpenter says, adding that this year’s vintage “has a nice fruity taste that it might not have had last year.”

The brewmaster spoke more freely about what’s not in the 2012 Our Special Ale. Among the ingredients that were used in previous versions and then retired permanently are unmalted, roasted pearl barley (obtained from a company that was processing the grain as a coffee supplement) and frankincense, an aromatic resin: “I wasn’t a big fan of [its] aroma,” Carpenter says.

Allspice has never been in the mix, he adds, although many people have thought they detected its prescence.
Some characteristics of Our Special Ale don’t change. Its alcohol content hovers around 5.5 percent by volume. The brewery continues to market it as a holiday seasonal rather than a winter seasonal, even though that means retailers are apt to remove unsold beer from their coolers once the calendar flips past Jan. 1.

The label once again depicts an evergreen. This year’s featured tree is a Norfolk Island pine. 

Carpenter did drop one small bombshell: The 2013 Our Special Ale might no longer be a spiced beer. “I think we’ve taken this about as far as it can go. I’m leaning toward making a big change for next year.”

What will it morph into? Beer geeks could guess, or be content to wait for a gift of the season.

Kitsock’s Beer column runs monthly in Food.

Further reading:

* GF lager and pale ale a toast for all?

* What hot peppers do for a brew