THE WEEK should not pass without a toast to the 50th anniversary of the seminal event of modern American brewing.
No, I’m not talking about the invention of the beer-can ring-pull.
I’m instead raising my glass to Aug. 2, 1965, the day when a 27-year-old named Frederick Louis Maytag 3rd – a/k/a Fritz – paid “practically nothing” for a controlling share of San Francisco’s aging dump known as Anchor Brewery.
It was that day that Maytag slapped American beer in its face and woke it up from its pitiful, ugly slide into mass mediocrity.
Of course, it didn’t happen in a single day. It took nearly a decade for Maytag to salvage the brewery and begin turning out quality beer. And, man, what beer! Not just San Francisco’s iconic Steam Beer, but a multitude of other styles that Americans had never tasted in the age of factory-made light lagers.
With Maytag as their model, hundreds of homebrewers and entrepreneurs soon recognized that it was possible to run a small, independent brewery and compete in the age of consolidation. All they had to do was produce quality, full-flavored beer.
So, this is not an overstatement: Maytag’s impulsive purchase of Anchor on that Monday afternoon in 1965 sparked the greatest wave of beer-making creativity in the history of mankind as, in the next 50 years, the nation would go from fewer than 200 operating breweries making the same beer over and over, to more than 3,700 producing an astonishing array of flavors.
Maytag sold the brewery in 2010, and today the guy deserves an entire wing in my Beer Hall of Foam. In the meantime, here are a few more anniversary thoughts.
The Maytag family. Fritz is the great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag washing machine company. His father founded Maytag Dairy Farms, famous for its blue cheese.
Where inspiration struck. Maytag says he bought Anchor after learning, over drinks with Fred Kuh, owner of The Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco, that the brewery was about to close. The restaurant was a Bohemian hangout in the ’50s and ’60s, attracting the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Arlo Guthrie.
According to Maytag, Kuh told him, “You ought to see it . . . you’d like it. “
Maytag, a Stanford grad with a wad of inherited cash and no real ideas about his future, wandered over the next day and bought the place for “less than the price of a used car. “
Steam Beer. Anchor’s flagship beer is a hybrid brew made with lager yeast that uniquely ferments at a warmer temperature than typical lagers. Though steam beer has been around since the mid-1800s, Anchor says its version is likely different from the historic brew.
Anchor says its name comes from the steam that was generated when it used to cool its hot wort in open tubs. Others say its due to its high concentration of carbon dioxide, which required one to let out steam before dispensing.
In any case, Anchor now holds the trademark for “Steam Beer,” which is now known generically as “California Common Beer. “
More than just Steam
Porter – With all due respect to Yuengling Porter, which had been around since 1829, it was Anchor’s dark, roasty ale, made with a distinctive top-fermenting yeast, that put the style back on beer menus nationwide, beginning in 1972.
Our Special Ale – Until this holiday favorite was introduced in 1975, American Christmas beer amounted to nothing more than red-and-green cans stacked at the front of your local distributor. Each year’s recipe changes – another Anchor innovation.
Liberty Ale – When it was introduced in 1975, few Americans had ever tasted an India pale ale. Now it’s the craft beer’s biggest-selling style.
Old Foghorn – Another nearly lost style, this high-alcohol barleywine sparked America’s fascination with super-strong ales when it was first bottled in 1976.
The changing landscape. It’s tempting to think that the revival of Anchor Brewing reversed the domination of Anheuser-Busch. In fact, the monolith controlled less than 12 percent of U.S. beer sales in 1965. Today, A-B brands account for about half of all sales.
That’s not to say that small breweries haven’t changed the landscape. Only two of the top 10 breweries in 1965 (A-B and Miller) still brew their own beer.
- Miller Coors
- Boston Beer (Sam Adams)
- North American (Genesee, Pyramid, Magic Hat)
- Sierra Nevada
- New Belgium
- Craft Brewing Alliance (Redhook, Widmer)
- Gambrinus (Shiner)
Note: Anchor is ranked No. 22.