JACK CURTIN talks to Fritz Maytag, a man largely responsible for the growth of the microbrewery movement in the United States

(Published in Beers of the World, February 2007)

The legend of Fritz Maytag and his Anchor Brewing Company is essentially true. The 28-year old Maytag, heir to a family washing machine fortune, was indeed sitting in his favorite watering hole, the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco's hip North Beach neighborhood, sipping a pint of Anchor Steam Beer in August 1965 when restaurateur Fred Kuh told him the brewery was due to shut down in a day or two. He did dutifully trot over the following afternoon and plop down a $5,000 check to save the place. He did soon take complete control and drag the "medieval" brewery into modern times to begin making a series of world-class beers.

What the legend gets wrong is implying that the beer Maytag set out to save was actually good. And what it sometimes-inexplicably-overlooks is that Maytag's rescue of Anchor Brewing was nothing less than the "Big Bang" of the American craft brewing revolution. Everything flowed from that moment.

"Anchor Steam in those days was more often than not terribly sour," Maytag recalls. "I enjoyed drinking it more for the experience, for the idea of consuming a beer made right here in the city, than for the beer itself. When I wrote that check, I saw myself as a kind of angel who helped out and would come by now and then to see how things were going. But it didn't take long before I saw how difficult it was to sell sour beer and it bothered me terribly that people had such a low opinion of 'my' brewery. The brewery was ancient and dirty and I realized that I had to roll up my sleeves, get involved and learn how to make beer. I went out and got some books and brought in my microscope from home to set up a little laboratory. Fortunately, I was the kind of guy who has a microscope."

Steam beer (more properly "California common beer" ever since Anchor copyrighted the steam designation in 1981) is an indigenous American style created in mid-19th century California. Because temperatures were too warm for proper fermentation of ale yeast and there was no refrigeration, brewers improvised, making beer with lager yeast at ale fermentation temperatures. Although distinctive due to having both ale and lager characteristics, it was reportedly pretty foul stuff. It did have, however, the advantage of being cheap to produce. At one point there were dozens of breweries selling it in San Francisco. Anchor was the last remaining purveyor when Maytag bought the place and the beer apparently lived down to its reputation. He and his team slowly morphed it into a hand-made, all-malt lager, which is now the sine qua non quaff for fanciers of American craft beers.

Seen from today's perspective, there is something of an "everything old is new again" echo to be found in the Anchor resurrection. Once Anchor Steam was on track, Anchor Porter was introduced in 1972, and big, hoppy Liberty Ale (brewed to commemorate Paul Revere's midnight ride 200 years earlier) was released in 1975, as were Old Foghorn barleywine and Christmas Ale (a spiced ale since 1987, made with different ingredients each year). Summer Ale, the first American wheat beer, was born in 1984. While the term wasn't yet in use, each of those might, in context, be fairly characterized as an "extreme" beer for its time. There really wasn't anything like most of them being made anywhere in the world.

In addition to turning Anchor into an American icon, Maytag has been involved with a range of hand-produced, high-quality craft products, including what is considered America's finest blue cheese, made at Maytag Dairy Farms in Iowa, where cheese-making was begun by his father in 1941. He added a distillery to the brewery in 1993 which now produces Old Potrero, the first modern day US pot-still whiskey, and other award-winning potables. York Creek Vineyards, a Napa Valley property he purchased as a "refuge" shortly after buying Anchor, began producing wines in the early 1990s. In 2000, he built a tiny winery across the street from the brewery, where, as "the kind of guy who has a microscope" surely would, he personally makes small, experimentally batches using various grape varieties.

It has been, clearly, a life well lived. Maytag obviously takes great pride in every aspect of that life, but he tends to shy away from expressing those feelings too openly. His is a gentlemanly, old-fashioned style which employs self-effacing conversational asides to shift credit elsewhere or skims over the surface of this or that accomplishment with the verbal equivalent of a shrug. He did, however, admit to a gathering in Washington, DC, earlier this year that he takes offense whenever he sees New Albion, a short-lived venture started from scratch in 1977, cited as the first American microbrewery. And he was quite direct, rather cleverly so, on the topic of his place in brewing history during our interview in May.

Bringing up the name of Wilma Rudolph, who became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in 1960, Maytag noted that, years later, she was asked how she felt her achievements compared to those of championship US sprinters who followed in her wake. Rudolph replied, he said, "I never compared myself to them. I thought I was in a class by myself."

Fritz Maytag then laughed heartily. "Well," he said, "so did I."

Copyright (c) 2007 Jack Curtin

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