Different Strokes, Different Coasts

How craft brewing grew on either side of the country.

by Jack Curtin
Summer 2006

It began, most of us agree, with Fritz in 1965, sitting at the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco's North Beach, sipping his beloved Anchor Steam and getting the word from restaurateur Fred Kuh to enjoy it while he could because the then 82-year old brewery was due to close any day. He thereupon hied himself over to Anchor and wrote owner Lawrence Steese a check for $5,000 to keep the place alive, getting 51% interest in the business in return…plus responsibility for all its existing debts. His plan was "to give a little advice and then go away," but by 1969, he found himself in complete control, embarking on another eight years of modernizing the operation and perfecting the product before Anchor finally showed a small profit and was on the way to becoming the craft brewing icon it is today.

Despite current mythology that nobody really noticed outside of a few prehistoric beer geeks, the resurrection was not entirely ignored by the mass media. The September 4, 1978 issue of Newsweek, in a major feature story titled "The Battle of the Beers," which detailed the developing battle between Anheuser-Busch and Miller for control of the American beer scene ("Marketing and advertising, not the art of brewing, are the weapons," the piece noted presciently), Fritz Maytag and Anchor received a photo and full sidebar story. "I'll never forget the first brew I made," he told the magazine. "It seems like a very small thing, but it was a great encounter for me."

In fact, the Newsweek story also gave props to other lonely souls struggling to stem the coming tide, with sidebars about Wisconsin's Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing and 70-year old brewer Joe Pickett, trying to make a go of it in the former Dubuque Star Brewing Company in Iowa. And then there was this, in the main text: "America's smallest brewery, the New Albion Brewery in Sonoma County, Calif., was started late last year by an ex-Navy man, Jack McAuliffe, who found most U.S. beers too blah, and wanted to introduce a heady, English-style brew." There are those who argue, not without merit, that the real beginning of modern day craft brewing was marked by New Albion, and the saving of Anchor was just a precursor, essentially casting Maytag as John the Baptist to McAuliffe's malt messiah. Whatever, as the kids say.

Our purpose here is look at what happened in the years after those pioneers set things in motion, more specifically the different fashion in which craft brewing developed on the west and east coasts. The most obvious distinction, of course, is the simple fact that things kicked off on the former well over a decade before the first modern breweries and brewpubs began appearing on the latter. Conveniently enough, the reason for that is just as obvious: call it the inevitability of California, the reality of the more-truth-than-fiction dictum that the way to see what's coming next in America is to shift your gaze toward the "Eureka!" state.

California's flourishing and expanding wine industry offered a convenient blueprint for how a small production industry might function and be financed. The existence of that industry meant there already existed a network of supporting enterprises which could readily shift over to meet the needs of a emerging business model with similar requirements for tanks, fittings and equipment. Add in easy availability of hops from the Pacific Northwest, a homebrewing-friendly environment even before Jimmy Carter made it legal in 1978 and a back-to-the-land milieu among the younger generations (a precursor to today's Slow Food movement) and you had a perfect incubator for the nascent craft brewing industry.

Nor can we discount the brewing science and brewery engineering program at University of California-Davis, the only university level program of its kind in the country, which grew out of the university's already popular Viticulture and Enology department in 1958. Its mere existence, much less the number of aspiring brewers who passed through, was an invaluable asset. Dr. Michael Davis, who came to the U.S. from England in 1960 with a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, which also is home to the British School of Malting and Brewing, arrived at UC-Davis in 1962, and became the brewing program's director two years later. He added extension course on homebrewing to his duties a year or two after he took over. "At the time, the only way to enjoy an interesting and different beer was to make your own," he laughs. In 1991, Davis created a series of professional brewing programs for UC-Davis Extension, the university's professional and continuing education provider, courses he continues to teach today as professor emeritus. He says of the pre-Maytag Anchor, by the way, that "the brewing process was very unstable and microbiologically unsound. I could have given them some help with that, if asked, but what they really needed, and got, was what Fritz Maytag provided, financial support and good management."

Among those who were present during the halcyon days was Mendocino Brewing's Don Barkley, who calls himself the "last man standing" among the early craft brewers. He began making beer at New Albion in the summer of 1978 while a student at UC-Davis and became the head brewer there in 1981 after graduation. Barkley was part of the shutting down and moving of the brewhouse to Mendocino in 1983 after McAuliffe pulled the plug and says he served the first beer out of the re-established brewhouse in August of that year when Mendocino opened the Hopland Brewery and pub, becoming the first brewpub in California since Prohibition and the second in the U.S. after Bert Grant's, which opened in Yakima, Washington in 1982. What he remembers about UC-Davis is that wanting to be a craft brewer in the late '70s, much less dreaming of opening your own brewery, was still a startling idea to most of his contemporaries. "Even Dr. Lewis, who was the first one to tell me about Jack McAuliffe and Mendocino, kind of smirked when I told him that was what I wanted to do," Barkley says, "and the first two years I was in the program, the other students considered me an oddball. It wasn't until my final year that another student, a guy from Chicago, had the same goals."

The third seminal event in craft brewing history was the creation of Sierra Nevada in Chico, Cal. If Anchor was the reclamation of past glory and New Albion the spark that flickered and died to pass into legend, Sierra Nevada became the shining example of what might come to be. Ken Grossman, who owned a homebrew shop there, founded the brewery with partner Paul Camusi and they put together a 10 bbl system using equipment from defunct breweries, old dairy tanks and a soft drink bottling line. They brewed the first ever batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in November 1980 and began selling it in February 1981. It was, of course, an instant classic, a strikingly American beer made with quality ingredients and notable quantities of hops, creating a template of sorts for all who would follow. Sierra Nevada became the first new brewery to break out of the microbrewery classification by producing 31,000 bbl in 1990. Grossman remains the man in charge and brewmaster Steve Dressler has been with the brewery since 1983, about the time craft brewing was finally becoming something more than just a glint in the eye of some beer lovers on the nation's far shore.

To see where that glint led over the rest of the decade, we now jump to the other side of the continent, with a respectful nod to Bill Owens and Buffalo Bill's, California's first brewpub, and early-'80s arrivals Red Hook, Widmer, Bridgeport, Pyramid and other entities which marked the shift of the west coast craft beer epicenter northward, plus a quick glance downward at what the politicians call fly-over country to acknowledge craft brewing's emergence in Arizona (Riley-Lyon), Idaho (Snake River), Montana (Kessler) and, oh yes, Colorado, where, among other things, something called the Great American Beer Festival was held for the first time ever in 1982 in a hotel in Boulder, with 30 breweries represented.

The east offered a much different landscape than the west in the early '80s. For one thing, there wasn't the same sense of urgency prevalent, probably as a result of the more extensive availability of more and fresher European beers to sate the thirst of those unhappy with the Big Blands. A slow-as-she-goes environment was also a byproduct of the fact that any prospective brewery or brewpub founders had to deal with those people famously here to help, the gummint, in the form of outdated post-Prohibition legislation in many states, laws specifying how and where alcohol could be sold, what breweries could do and whether or not brewpubs might even exist. These had to be changed, rewritten or created brand new on a state-by-state basis, slowing the process by months and years.

It is probably perfect, then, that the most significant new wrinkle in craft brewing which occurred on the East coast bears a name that is near and dear to the hearts, such as they might exist, of lawyers and pols. New Amsterdam Brewing in New York city produced the first-ever contract beer in 1982, an amber ale brewed at the F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, NY. The contract concept was soon embraced, at least as a initial step, by many of the new breweries that would come to life in latter part of the decade, with Matt and The Lion Brewing in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as two of the primary producers. Boston Beer Company, which was founded in Boston in 1984, eventually made contract-brewed Samuel Adams the most successful craft brand of all, continuing for more than a decade to have all its products made at various breweries. The company still produces roughly a third of its beers under contract.

The first true microbrewery in the East was William S. Newman in Albany, NY, founded in 1981 and closed in 1987. That was followed by Chesapeake Bay Brewing, in Virginia Beach, Va., which opened in 1984. New England, especially cold and taciturn Maine, about as different as you could get from California, was the area where craft brewing rapidly flourished in the years to follow, so there surely is some sort of cosmic payback to be seen in the fact that Virginia got there first. After all, that's where the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were bound before they chose to land instead at Plymouth Rock, at least in part because they ran out of beer. Ironic comment by the beer gods or not, Chesbay lasted only until 1988.

In 1984, Manhattan Brewing opened the first brewpub in the East in New York City and 1986 turned out to be a watershed year. Commonwealth Brewing, Massachusetts's first brewpub, was opened in Boston by Richard Wrigley, who had started Manhattan; Tom Pastorius's Pennsylvania Brewing Company in Pittsburgh began contract brewing its world-class lagers, becoming the Commonwealth's first craft brewery (a brewpub and in-house brewing went on line in 1989) and contract-brewed Portland Lager was introduced in Maine by a pair of residents whose dream for a full-scale brewery never materialized. That latter ramped up the beer excitement in a city where interest had been building since the opening of Three Dollar Dewey's, Allan Eames' multi-tap, in 1980, and it set the stage perfectly for the emergence of D. L. Geary's later in the year. Geary's is today the oldest surviving microbrewery east of the Mississippi.

David Geary became friendly with brewer Peter Maxwell Stuart of Scotland's famed Traquair House when the latter was touring this country promoting his beers and went over there in 1984 to learn the business, brewing at several locations. While working at Peter Austin's Ringwood Brewery, he hired Alan Pugsley to come to Portland and help him set up his new, Austin-designed brewery (Pugsley, like the fabled guest who dropped in and never left, had a major effect on the development of American craft brewing in the years that followed, as we shall see). "I essentially cashed in everything and went for it," says Geary. "We were lucky to have very good distribution and a good network of willing retailers right from the start." His brewery is almost always cited by others as an example that encouraged them, but Geary shrugs that off with a laugh. "There aren't very many inspirations in this business, I think. The best you can hope for is grudging respect."

John Mallett, production manager at Kalamazoo Brewing in Michigan since 2001, embarked on his career at Commonwealth as Geary's was being built. He was the head brewer there for three-plus years, a period during he also spent time in Seattle helping owner Wrigley and his team open Pacific Northwest Brewing. Mallett then put himself through Siebold (at least three years' practical experience was a basis for enrollment in those days) and joined Old Dominion Brewing Virginia as head brewer about six months after it opened in 1990, staying until 1995. "I wanted to brew because I like good beer," he says of those early days, "but I also had a feeling that something big was happening and I wanted to be a part of it."

Tim Morse, who already had nine years in craft brewing at Anchor on his resume and was head brewer there before he left, came East in 1986 to work at Hope Brewing, a short-lived Rhode Island company which contracted its beers. As a result, he visited The Lion in Wilkes-Barre regularly and still recalls how old and bedraggled the plant was, a condition which was true of many of the old regional breweries in the East. He was under consideration to be brewmaster there at one point and remembers that "there was this young guy in the lab, Leo Orlandini, who I planned to make my assistant if I took the job." Morse instead went to Commonwealth in 1990, eventually meeting Grenville Byford and Gary Gut in Boston and became the founding brewer of the John Harvard's chain which they launched in 1992. Orlandini stayed on and became The Lion's head brewer in 1995. He was named mid-sized brewer of the year at GABF 2000 and moved up to plant manager in 2005, having shepherded the 105-year old brewery through the shoals of a changing beer scene.

1987 was an important year in Pennsylvania. Stoudt's opened the Commonwealth's first brewpub in Adamstown and began contracting 12oz bottles at The Lion, and Dock Street introduced its F. X. Matt-brewed amber ale in Philadelphia. Dock Street opened a brewpub there in 1990, only a few months behind the Samuel Adams (extract) brewpub which was a joint venture between Boston Beer's Jim Koch and a local restaurateur. Catamount opened in Vermont that year as well. In 1988, Gritty McDuff's opened in Portland and Blue Ridge in Charlottesville, VA., while Brooklyn Brewing offered its first contract-brewed beers that spring.

Sisson's, a good beer bar with ambitions, became Maryland's first brewpub in 1989, the same year Baltimore Brewing opened. Owner Hugh Sisson, who left the family business to establish Clipper City Brewing in 1995, says the shift from bar to brewpub was a five-year process which accelerated in 1987 when the state legislature changed the law so it was possible. "I was never a fan of basic American beers, he says, "so I originally fashioned the place along the lines of a British pub and brought in more than 100 beers, mostly imports. Then I thought, how about if we brew our own?" Similarly, McGuire's Irish Pub in Pensacola, Florida became McGuire's Irish Pub & Brewery the following year. The owners were also inspired by European beers. Founding (and still) brewer Steve Fried says that their dream was to be that state's first brewpub but that the since closed Sarasota Brewing Company beat them to it by a few months.

Fred Forsley was drinking with his brother in McGuire's, chewing over what to do about a vacant commercial real estate site he owned in Kennebunkport, Maine, when he was inspired by his surroundings. That led to a partnership between Forsley and Alan Pugsley and the creation of Federal Jack's Restaurant and Brew Pub and the Kennebunkport Brewing Company in 1992 and The Shipyard Brewing Company in, where else, Portland two years later. Pugsley, of course, had a tremendous impact on the New England brewing scene aside from his contributions at Geary's and his ongoing involvement in Shipyard and no record of the time would be complete without noting that. The numerous Peter Austin-built brewing systems he installed and, most especially, the love-it-or-hate-it Ringwood yeast he extols, have made him as controversial as he has been influential. When a journalist once described Pugsley as "the Johnny Appleseed of American Brewing," a well-known brewer cracked "Typhoid Mary would be more like it." Either way, there was nobody quite like Pugsley on the west coast, which is perhaps the final distinction in how the two sides of the country differed during the formative years.

And that, omissions, short shrifts and all, is how we got from there to here, or at least to 1990 or so. Lying ahead of those pioneering spirits were the craft beer explosion of the mid-'90s fueled by both contenders and pretenders and the scarifying crash 'n' burns at decade's end which took down most of the latter, followed by what has started out to be a glorious new century for craft brewers. What comes next? Well, history is cyclical after all, so maybe this…

Several decades from now, a 21st century version of Fritz Maytag is sitting at a bar somewhere in California, drinking a pale yellow brew from America's last surviving no-longer-mass brewery, and this guy who's resided all his life in country which had been swept up in the craft beer revolution and seen the demise and virtual disappearance of what was once called American lager, says to himself, "you know, I really like this stuff. Maybe I ought to buy the brewery and…"


Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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