What began more than three decades ago as a small-batch specialty beer made by a local beer hero has grown thunderously into perhaps the most cult-acclaimed craft beer style in America: the barleywine.
Fritz Maytag is the man to thank. He had just bought a beer factory in Potrero Hill called Anchor Brewing Company, but rather than give Americans more of the same wan lager they'd been drinking since the 1950s, Maytag took a breath, looked east, and traveled to England with two friends for an educational beer tour. It was 1975, an era when beer geeks were as yet unknown ― Maytag and his pals may have been the first on record, especially after their pilgrimage to the British countryside to sift through the figurative shadows and dust clods of England's lost beer styles. They drank in nameless pubs in far-off villages. Maytag knew what he was looking for: classic British beers, malt- and hop-heavy, brimming with flavor. To their disappointment, England's beer culture had gone the same way as America's ― into the mass-market realm of watery lagers fermented largely from cane and corn sugars.
Then, just days before Maytag had to return to America to start brewing, he came across the barleywine, a strong, malty ale, mild on the hops, and thick with caramel, butterscotch, and brandy flavors. It captured Maytag's imagination: He walked out of the pub with the recipe. Back home, he brewed his own rendition and named it Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale, the first of its kind in America. It was destined to become a classic.