When Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing 50 years ago this month, he had no intention of starting the craft beer revolution. But in August 1965, there were only 100 businesses in the country that fit the definitions of a microbrewery; today, there are over 3800.
“The rest of the world is now making American-style beer,” Anchor’s brewmaster, Mark Carpenter, told SF Weekly. “It’s turned upside-down, and this is the beer that did it.
Maytag’s in his 70s now, and, having handed off the company to President and CEO Keith Greggor, his role is increasingly ceremonial.
“We recently shared the stage at a conference in Sonoma,” Greggor said. “We stay in touch, I can call him anytime. We’ve become good friends over the years, but he’s not looking to pound the street selling beer.”
[jump] Fifty years on, Anchor may have grown so large that it’s no longer technically a microbrewery, but it’s not looking to become the industry’s equivalent of Microsoft: big and universally known, but no longer a hotbed of innovation. Anchor continues to put out about four new beers each year, from the Zymaster Series to the seasonals. And through Sunday, August 23, it’s Drink Steam Week, to commemorate the seismic changes that continue to ripple throughout the world of beer. Even City Hall acknowledged it. Anchor is partnering with bars across the city to make Anchor Steam the featured beer, holding trivia nights, and even an Anchor Steam ice cream.
I asked Carpenter — who’s been in the brewhouse since 1970 — and Greggor about the foodie culture that’s sprouted up all around them. They’ve had a lot of chefs express interest over the years, particularly because a cold beer suits a hot environment like the kitchen, but have sometimes struggled to gain traction against a certain other beverage.
“Chefs have been behind craft beer forever,” Carpenter said, “but it’s been a struggle with most restaurant owners because they might make much more money selling a bottle of wine. They’re slow to make that change to start promoting beers, but boy, it’s happening. Because that’s what the public wants. That’s one thing restaurateurs know how to do is deliver what the public wants.”
For his part, Greggor sees beer culture making serious inroads.
“I was in a stylish, high-end cocktail bar, and they had one of our beers, which is in cans,” he said. “They got a very nice glass out, got the can, and presented it to me. Well, that restaurant wouldn’t have let a can come into the building even five years ago, let alone present it with pride to the customer.”
In spite of the explosion of, Anchor Brewing has few imitators. Their strict adherence to traditional methods (open fermentation, natural carbonation, the use of whole hops instead of pellets or extracts, copper kettles) presents a high hurdle for anyone looking to copy their work. Whole hops require refrigeration, and the open tanks need extra cleaning. Anchor doesn’t even use computers, as Carpenter notes with some pride.
“The vast majority [of new microbreweries] are really miniatures of large breweries,” he said. “It’s all stainless steel, it’s all computer-operated. A guy once asked what computer system we have in our brewhouse. I said ‘We don’t.’ He said, ‘You can’t make beer without a computer!’ Well, for thousands of years, people made beer that way.”
Indeed, much of Anchor’s success comes from sticking to the old ways. Its California Lager, which began as a one-off, was an attempt to re-create what people drank in San Francisco in 1875. And if it sounds like trying to clone extinct megafauna back into existence by selectively breeding modern species, it really wasn’t terribly complex.
“We didn’t find a recipe from 1870s,” Carpenter said. “But barley farmers had started up in California, and hop growers were here. (The hops they grew were cluster hops and they did very well in California, because they didn’t have the disease they had in the East.) We know what the alcohol was supposed to be, because they were making German lager, and we know what the bitterness was supposed to be.”
All this candor is refreshing, considering how hard it is to open an iPhone casing without Apple’s propriety tools, or that there are supposedly only five people on Earth who know the formula for Coca-Cola. But Carpenter and Greggor cling tightly to certain secrets.
“We’re working on our Christmas Ale, but we won’t tell you anything about it,” Carpenter said. “That one’s always been a secret.”
Both the ale and the label have changed every year since 1975, and while he reveals that one year they experimented with frankincense, all he will tell me is that there is not now and never has been any allspice in it. (Fritz Maytag blurted that one out years ago, possibly to get people to stop asking.)
I ask Carpenter if there’s anything he’s made, taken one sip of, and thought, “Well, that’s very good, but the world’s not ready for it yet.” He admits it’s happened.
“The Mild,” he said. “I just loved the Mild. I even said at the time that we shouldn’t name it ‘Mark's Mild.’ People don’t want to drink ‘mild,’ but boy, was it good. I took that sip out of the cellar tank, thinking ‘I could be in a pub in Britain right now.’”
See everything Anchor Brewing is doing for Drink Steam Week (Aug. 16-23).