Monday, April 26, 2010

The End of an Era

I was trying to decide what to write about this week when I received a press release on Monday that dropped a real bombshell:

Fritz Maytag in selling the Anchor Brewing Company!

For the last forty-five years, Fritz Maytag has been the godfather of American craft brewing. In 1965, he invested in a failing brewery in San Francisco, one of the last regional breweries still operating in the US, simply because he loved the beer it made. Anchor Brewing produced a unique style of beer, one brewed with lager yeasts at ale temperatures, that dates all the way back to the California Gold Rush.

Over the next several years, Fritz threw himself into the business of beer, teaching himself brewing and becoming the first real advocate in America for using quality ingredients to brew a superior (as opposed to the cheapest possible) beer. He worked hard to correct quality control issues, and in 1971 he debuted his improved version on Anchor Steam. In 1979 he was able to move the brewery into its current home. Together Fritz and Anchor Brewing Company have gone from strength to strength, and along the way they revived beer styles like porter, IPA, and barleywine. While today these styles are mainstays of American craft brewing, back then no one had brewed them in America in generations, until Fritz brought them back. Besides all this, Fritz Maytag also opened a distillery, which has become famous for producing Old Protrero 18th Century Style Whiskey. This is a 100% rye single malt whiskey, just like the first whiskey made in America.

Most importantly, despite all his many, wonderful successes, Fritz Maytag never let any of it go to his head. He frequently said that he was not interested in getting any bigger or making more money; he just wanted to continue to brew quality beers.

So what are those beers like?

Let's start with Anchor Steam, their flagship brew. This beer has always had a very special place in my heart, as it was the first real craft beer I ever drank. I was introduced to it in April, 1984, at the Pied Piper Bar in the St. Charles Hotel in San Francisco. From my first sip, I realized that this beer was something totally different from any I'd ever had before. For years afterward, I'd jump at the chance to have an Anchor Steam. It's an orange-amber color, and typically pours with an outstanding head. There is a light, fruity aroma (produced by the unusually high fermentation temperatures) with some hop notes. On the palate the hops strike first, with significant bitterness, but this is quickly balanced by a bready maltiness, which eventually fades to a very dry finish. At 4.9% ABV, Anchor Steam is not overly strong, and wonderfully drinkable. A genuine American classic, just like Fritz Maytag.

In 1972, Anchor recreated a long forgotten beer style: Porter. By that time rare even in Britain, American Porters were almost extinct when Fritz Maytag decided to brew one. This was another beer I grabbed every chance I got; during my bachelor years my couch had a large brown stain on it, due to an incident involving some drunk Navy friends and a bottle of Anchor Porter. The beer itself pours totally black with a tan head. Roasted flavors dominate, with elements of chocolate, espresso, and licorice. There's a nice balancing bitterness, pushing to a moderately dry finish. This beer was a harbinger of all the craft porters and stouts to follow.

If his porter opened the door for the craft brewers who followed, Fritz's next creation blew that door right off its hinges! In honor of the bicentennial of Paul Revere's ride, Fritz decided to revive another long-forgotten beer style. On April 18, 1975, he released a beer called Liberty Ale, and it was his interpretation of -- wait for it-- an India Pale Ale. Brewed with tremendous (for 1975) hop bitterness, dry hopped with Pacific Northwest Cascade hops, Liberty Ale was the prototype of every American IPA that has been brewed since. Originally intended to be brewed only once, Liberty Ale proved so popular that it returned on an irregular basis until being made a permanent offering in 1983. While somewhat tame by the standard of today's Double/Triple/Imperial IPAs, in 1975 it was shattering, and remains an excellent and highly drinkable IPA even today.

Also in 1975, Anchor release its Old Foghorn Barleywine. Here again is a style of beer, once practically extinct in America, which is now very common among craft brewers, thanks to the pioneering work of Fritz Maytag. Weighing in at about 9% ABV, dry hopped with Cascades and carbonated entirely naturally, it's another classic of the style. It pours a lovely mahogany color, with an aroma of resiny Cascade hops and sweet fruit. On the palate the malt takes center stage, with caramel at the start, quickly balance by hop bitterness. It finishes short and hoppy. This is definitely a sipping beer; this used to be made immediately obvious by its packaging in 7 oz "nip" bottles, but it has been available in regular 12 oz bottles since 2005.

I could go on and on about the many other wonderful beers the Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing have produced over the last 45 years, but you get the picture. While I am very sad to see this happen, Fritz is now 72 years old and I can understand his desire to slow down. Anchor Brewing is being purchased by the Griffin Group, a boutique investment company based in Novato, California, and led by alcohol-industry veterans Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio, who helped to develop Skyy Vodka. The new owners will work with Maytag, who will serve as chairman emeritus of the new corporate entity, to "maintain the iconic brewery and distillery in San Francisco," according to a press release.

I only hope they can continue to do justice to the legacy of a true giant of craft brewing.

Tomorrow I head up to Anchorage for the day, and I hope to be bringing some interesting beers back to try. This Saturday, May 1st, is National Homebrew Day. I'm going to have about a dozen people over at my place, helping me brew a batch of American IPA. What are you going to do to celebrate it?

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

So When We Can Get Some of That Global Warming?

OK, so I'm looking out the window, watching it snow like crazy. We got two inches last night, and it's still coming down. Could this be the dreaded Fimbul Winter? In Norse mythology, the end of the world, also known as Ragnarok, would be heralded by three winters without any summers, where the snow comes from all directions. There will be wars, and brother will kill brother, until even the gods meet their doom.

Hmm, the Saints did win the Super Bowl. This could be it. Better run the checklist.

Let's see, snow from all directions, check. Let me turn on CNN; lots of wars, check. Brother will kill brother: well, mine's in Florida and there's no way he could get a flight up here in this weather. Whew! Guess it's not the end of the world after all.

Looks like it's just April in Alaska...

Not a tremendous amount of beer news up here this week; most of the local brewers are working their equipment as fast as they can to brew up the mass quantities of beer they're going to need for the tourists this summer. At least we all hope that a lot of beer will be needed; I guess if we don't have any tourists, we'll have plenty of beer to drown our collective sorrows in.

The 2010 World Beer Cup Awards have been announced. This year, 642 breweries from 44 countries and 47 U.S. states vied for awards with 3,351 beers entered in 90 beer style categories. The entries in each category were eligible for gold, silver and bronze awards. Judges presented a total of 268 awards. As usual, Alaska did well, with our brewers taking home three medals.

In Category 19, Aged Beer, Alaskan Brewing Company's Alaskan Smoked Porter 1998 took gold. There were twenty beers entered in this category. In Category 50, Other Belgian-style Ale, Sleeping Lady's Frozen Kriek took silver. There were 35 entries in that category. Finally, in Category 68, Barley Wine-style Ale, Alaskan Brewing's Alaskan Barleywine 2009 took bronze, with 58 entries. Considering we were competing against the entire world, this is a great showing for Alaska.

Over the weekend I did get around to having some of the Oskar Blues beers I picked up at SAV-U-MOR last week. On Saturday Elaine and I went over to a party at my boss's home. I thought that Mama's Little Yella Pils would be pretty approachable for most folks, so I brought a six-pack. It poured very nice from the can, bright gold with two fingers of nice white head. Moving on to aroma, there's not a whole lot. Nothing like the bright hoppy notes you'd look for from a Czech pilsner. Some malt, but nothing special. On the palate, it's more of the same. Mostly malt, in the style of a German pilsner, but no snap or spark. Very drinkable, but not at all challenging. At 5.3% ABV and 35 IBUs, this is the craft beer you offer your friends who don't drink craft beer so as not to scare them off. Easily the least impressive of any of the beers I've had from Oskar Blues. Not bad, just not special.

Moving on to the Ten-FIDY Imperial Stout, we confront an entirely different animal. I tried one last night, and it poured black as midnight into a glass, producing a one finger head that was also very dark, almost purple rather than tan. The aroma is full of chocolate and roast malts, and the mouthfeel is heavy and rich, like drinking ice cream. The tremendous maltiness is well-balanced by massive hops additions (98 IBUs), and the finish just seems to go on and on. At 10.5% ABV, this beer puts the Imperial in Russian Imperial Stout. It's an absolutely fantastic interpretation of the style, and one of the top three or four beers in this style available around here. Plus it's packaged in cans, so it would be easy to pack into the back country. This is certainly a beer to savor after a long day's work or play. If you haven't tried it, pick some up now.

Well, that's it for now. I should have more news next week, unless I'm wrong about the whole end-of-the-world thing and the Fenris Wolf breaks free from his bonds to ravage the world of men before slaying Odin...

Until Next Time, Skoal!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

So here we are, trying to to put winter behind us and the week starts with a couple of days of snow. Springtime in Alaska, you've got to love it! Walmart has opened in the city of Kenai. Our local volcano has started rumbling again, so there's some more potential fun for all of us up here on the Kenai Peninsula. Not to mention the Alaska Legislature is still in session, so no Alaskan's life, liberty, or property is safe. At work, I'm busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Lord, I need another beer.

Speaking of beer, I was at St. Elias Brewing Company last Saturday, getting a tour along with some of the students from the class I am currently teaching, The Art and History of Brewing. We got a great tour from Zach Henry, then my wife Elaine and I sat down to have dinner with some of our friends.

As we were sitting there, enjoying great pizzas and wonderful ales, it occurred to me that it was less than two years since St. Elias opened for business and only about four years since our other two local breweries, Kenai River Brewing and Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop, opened there doors. Given the tremendous positive impact all three of these businesses have had on the local area, it's hard to remember what things were like before they came to town.

I for one am damn glad they did so and I hope that all three continue to be very prosperous and successful in the future. Together, they certainly make this a much better place in which to live.

While I was at St. Elias, I tasted their Brass Monkey ESB. This beer was released originally last year, but this time around Zach has added some Amarillo hops to the traditional British varieties used to dry hop it. These American hops give a bit more zip to the hop profile, making it a bit more suited to local tastes, I think.

Zach also mentioned that when his Snow Angel Imperial Pilsner is exhausted, he will be replacing it with his Eclipse, which is a Strong Ale consisting of Baltic porter blended with barleywine and aged in a used bourbon cask. I have tasted it and it's fantastic, so keep an eye out for it. St. Elias also now has 1 liter swing top bottles, to compliment the half gallon growlers it has always had.

Earlier this week. I stopped by SAV-U-MOR to pick up some Pepsi for my wife and some beers for me. I was chatting with Shelly, the manager of their liquor store, as I was making my selections. She told me that she'd been having some trouble getting enough of some beers (like Saison Dupont, for instance) and asked me to suggest some other stuff to bring in. Off the top of my head, I suggested she see about getting in some of Oskar Blues beers, specifically their Old Chub Scotch Ale, Mama's Little Yella Pils and Ten-Fidy, their Imperial Stout. I pointed out that there's a real market for good craft beer in cans here on the Kenai, with so many folks doing things in the outdoors or in boats. That was on Tuesday at noon. Thursday at 3 PM I stopped by to grab something I'd forgotten. The checkout line in the liquor store was shorter, so I ducked in there to check out. Low and behold, in the cooler were all three of the beers I'd suggested, less than 48 hours later! Good job, Shelly! I am not exaggerating when I say that SAV-U-MOR is becoming THE place to shop for good craft beer in the Soldotna-Kenai area.

I reviewed Old Chub on 3/31/2009 and Dale's Pale Ale on 9/1/2009; I'll try to have review of Ten-Fidy & Mama's Little Yella Pils for next time.

Speaking of Imperial Stouts, when I was in SAV-U-MOR, Shelly suggested I try Left Hand Brewing Company's Imperial Stout, as a lot of folks spoke highly of it. I bought a bottle and tried it that night. It poured very dark, almost opaque, but with some ruby highlights. The tan head was good, but not exceptional; typical for such a high alcohol beer. The aroma was all roasted malts, no hops; very appealing. Tons of mouthfeel, with flavors of coffee and molasses, finishing fairly dry. It weighs in at 10.4% ABV and 80 IBUs, this is a big, Americanized version of the classic Russian Imperial Stout. An excellent beer, I can see why folks are asking after it. The label says: "A black ale to brighten your day"; I can't say it any better!

More beer news from up in Anchorage: Midnight Sun has released the first two beers in their latest series, the Pop Ten. The first is Free Loader, a Double Red IPA, and the second is Gold Digger, a Double American Pilsner. Both are on draft only. As soon as I can get up to Anchorage I'll give them a try and let you know what I think of them. The bottled version of Mayhem (see my review on 2/17/2010) should be available within the next week or two as well.

Finally, looking ahead, the 18th Annual Great Alaskan Craft Beer and Home Brew Festival will be held in Haines on May 28th & 29th. I haven''t yet had the chance to attend (and unless I hit the lottery, I won't be going this year either), but I have heard it's a wonderful time. If you can make it to Haines at the end of May, you really should check it out.

Well, that's about it for this week. Sorry it's so late, but things have been pretty crazy around here...

Until Next Time, Cheers!