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!

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