By Dave Burkhart, Anchor’s Design & Graphics Production Manager and Brewery Historian
Anchor has been brewing its uniquely traditional Christmas Ale since 1975. The recipe is different every year and so is the tree on the label. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew.
It all begins with the tree. For many of us at Anchor, our first job was working part-time in the bottle shop during the busy holiday season. Christmas Ale requires extra help. It’s great fun and if you worked hard, got along, and got lucky, you would have a shot at getting hired full-time! Since the tree on our Christmas Ale label changes every year, those of us who won the Anchor lottery will never forget their first Anchor tree (mine was birch-1991).
I also have a vivid memory of another tree (apple-1993), which was the first time Fritz Maytag asked me to accompany him on a Christmas Ale label press check. A press check is an opportunity for a customer to visit a printer in order to sign off in person on the way their print job looks on press. The late Ken Hepler, a longtime San Francisco printer, hosted us that day. I don’t remember saying much (probably a good idea—I was as green as the tree on the label), but I do remember being fascinated by the process. The next year I joined Fritz’s label design team.
When I was growing up, our Christmas season always began the day after Thanksgiving, when we went as a family in search of the perfect tree. It ended on Epiphany (January 6) when the tree came down. Just as the selection of the family tree (no pun intended) is a cherished tradition, so is the selection of the tree for our Christmas Ale label.
Each has its own unique story, look, and personality, just like our beers. Whether real or fanciful, the trees were originally chosen only by Fritz himself. Often they were trees that grew on his vineyard near St. Helena. Over the years, I’ve been honored to recommend five trees (2003, 2004, 2011, 2012, and 2013). Anchor brewer Kevin West recommended the tree for our 2009 label. It’s a responsibility we at Anchor take very seriously.
This year’s tree is the California White Fir. I came upon it indirectly while researching the California grizzly that is on our Anchor California Lager® label. Long story short, I was reading about a man who chased a wounded grizzly into the woods (better than a grizzly chasing a wounded man out of the woods!). The woods in this case would become known as the Calaveras Grove. Here is the story, as told by James Mason Hutchings (1820–1902) in his 1888 book, In the Heart of the Sierras. It’s so engagingly and charmingly written that I couldn’t resist quoting it in its entirety.
“In the spring of 1852, Mr. A. T. Dowd [Augustus Truman Dowd, 1823–1893, is buried in Saratoga. His tombstone credits him as the “Effective Discoverer of the Calaveras Big Trees], a hunter, was employed by the Union Water Company, of Murphy’s, Calaveras County, to supply the workmen engaged in the construction of their canal, with fresh meat, from the large quantities of game running wild on the upper portion of their works. While engaged in this calling, having wounded a grizzly bear, and while industriously pursuing him, he suddenly came upon one of those immense trees that have since become so justly celebrated throughout the civilized world. All thoughts of hunting were absorbed and lost in the wonder and surprise inspired by the scene. ‘Surely,’ he mused, ‘this must be some curiously delusive dream!’ But the great realities indubitably confronting him were convincing proof, beyond question, that they were no mere fanciful creations of his imagination.
“Returning to camp, he there related the wonders he had seen, when his companions laughed at him; and even questioned his veracity, which, previously, they had considered to be in every way reliable. He affirmed his statement to be true; but they still thought it ‘too big a story’ to believe, supposing that he was trying to perpetrate upon them some first-of-April joke.
“For a day or two he allowed the matter to rest; submitting, with chuckling satisfaction, to their occasional jocular allusions to ‘his big tree yarn,’ but continued hunting as formerly. On the Sunday morning ensuing, he went out early as usual, but soon returned in haste, apparently excited by some great event, when he exclaimed, ‘Boys. I have killed the largest grizzly bear that I ever saw in my life. While I am getting a little something to eat, you make every preparation for bringing him in; all had better go that can possibly be spared, as their assistance will certainly be needed.’
“As the big tree story was now almost forgotten, or by common consent laid aside as a subject of conversation; and, moreover, as Sunday was a leisure day, and one that generally hangs the heaviest of the seven on those who are shut out from social or religious intercourse with friends, as many Californians unfortunately were and still are, the tidings were gladly welcomed, especially as the proposition was suggestive of a day’s intense excitement.
“Nothing loath, they were soon ready for the start. The camp was almost deserted. On, on they hurried, with Dowd as their guide, through thickets and pine groves; crossing ridges and cañons, flats, and ravines, each relating in turn the adventures experienced, or heard of from companions, with grizzly bears, and other formidable tenants of the mountains, until their leader came to a halt at the foot of the immense tree he had seen, and to them had represented the approximate size. Pointing to its extraordinary diameter and lofty height, he exultingly exclaimed, ‘Now, boys, do you believe my big tree story? That is the large grizzly I wanted you to see. Do you now think it a yarn?’ By this ruse of their leader all doubt was changed into certainty, and unbelief into amazement; as, speechless with profound awe, their admiring gaze was riveted upon those forest giants.
“But a short season was allowed to elapse before the trumpet-tongued press proclaimed abroad the wonder; and the intelligent and devout worshipers, in nature and science, flocked to the Big Tree Groves of Calaveras, for the purpose of seeing for themselves the astounding marvels about which they had heard so much.”
Dowd’s Big Tree, of course, was Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoia. Fritz chose it for our second Christmas Ale label, during our nation’s bicentennial year. It was beautifully drawn by Richard Elmore, a local artist, architect, and longtime friend of the Brewery. The people standing near the trunk help give it the scale this California native deserves.
Dowd’s story of the Big Tree led me to a wonderful little book called William Lobb, Plant Hunter for Veitch and Messenger of the Big Tree. It was Lobb who, in 1853, brought seeds and specimens of the Big Tree to England and Professor John Lindley, who named it Wellingtonia gigantea. Americans would have preferred Washingtonia gigantea no doubt, but in the end neither got their way.
Not everyone who came to California in 1849 came in search of gold. A few came in search of trees. English botanist William Lobb was one such plant hunter. As a collector of California’s exotic flora for English nurseries—especially Veitch & Sons near Exeter—the “lynx-eyed” Lobb (born in East Cornwall in 1809; died in San Francisco in 1864) was responsible for the introduction of fifty-eight species of California plants to English gardens, including Giant Sequoia and California White Fir.
Lobb’s biography, including his role as messenger of the Big Tree and discoverer of the festive California White Fir, is a compelling California story. A Manual of the Coniferae was published in 1881 by the Veitch nursery, for which the horticulturally intrepid Lobb worked most of his life. James Veitch admired him greatly. “Lobb’s experience as a collector, his indomitable perseverance, and courage, which was deterred by no danger, no toil, or no privation, enabled him to surmount difficulties and accomplish enterprises during … seven years of his collecting excursions through California and Oregon, which were scarcely equalled [sic] by [David] Douglas [of Douglas Fir fame] himself.”
Lobb’s discovery, the California White Fir, is the quintessential Christmas tree. Surprisingly, we have never featured it on a Christmas Ale label before. Here is the tree, as drawn by our label artist, Jim Stitt. Since 1975, Stitt has hand-drawn all but one of our thirty-nine Christmas Ale labels.
The California White Fir’s botanical name, Abies concolor var. Lowiana, literally means “fir of uniform color,” which refers to the matching color of both sides of this beautiful evergreen’s needles. Although Lobb gets the credit for the California White Fir’s discovery, Lowiana refers to Messrs. Low and Co. of England’s Clapton Nursery, to whom Lobb sent its seeds.
In its youth, the symmetry of California White Fir’s pyramidal form makes it the ideal Christmas tree for home or garden. Its shade tolerance allows it to thrive at modest size for years amid groves of much taller Sequoias; yet it can attain heights of up to 160 feet when given the opportunity. The winged seeds of the California White Fir—beautifully illustrated on our neck label by Jim Stitt—are collected not only by botanists, but also by mountain songbirds, chipmunks, and squirrels.
I discussed the tree and its uniquely California story with the Brewery’s CEO and director of marketing. They loved it. Next, I met with Jim Stitt, told him the story, and showed him some vintage illustrations, pictures, and books. We talked about how the label could evoke an old English Christmas. Work began in earnest last April and the label, thanks to Jim’s incredible illustrations, the Blow Up Lab’s great scans, and the artistry of our graphic designer Jack Martin, came together very quickly. Jim deserves all the credit for the garlands of hops and barley, which he thought up and drew especially for this year’s label. At first, I was concerned that they might detract from the tree because, of course, it’s all about the tree. But, thanks to Jim’s talent and experience, they don’t.
Here is more of the artwork Jim created toward the design of our 2013 Christmas Ale label. Imagine the challenge of brewing thirty-nine distinct Christmas Ales over four decades. Then imagine the challenge of designing thirty-nine labels, each with a new tree, a new look, a familiar greeting, and a uniquely Anchor tradition.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from all of us at Anchor Brewing!
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