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Anchor Steam: The Giant of Micro-Breweries

TIMES WINE WRITER

In 1965 young Fritz Maytag, whose grandfather founded the Maytag washing machine company, was asked to bail out a decaying brewery located in the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco. He invested and immediately changed it from a tiny independent local brewery to an innovative, quality-minded, “upscale” operation using only the best ingredients.

Today, on the 25th anniversary of the new management, Anchor Brewing Co. is closing in on production of 60,000 barrels of beer (there are 31 gallons in a barrel) and is the largest micro-brewery in the nation. As an homage to this phenomenal growth, Anchor will be featured in tonight’s segment of the six-part series, “The Beer Hunter,” hosted by brewing expert Michael Jackson on the cable Discovery Channel.

“Making good beer consistently is so much harder than making wine,” Maytag says. “With wine, you have different vintages. So a guy can harvest grapes in 1990 and say, ‘Oh, that wine reflects the vintage,’ and then in 1991 he harvests grapes and says, ‘That tastes like ’91.’ But beer has to be the same every week.”

The style Anchor has chosen for its various products is richer and fuller-bodied than the light, rather straightforward beers that Americans have been taught to like. American beer is for quaffing; Anchor and other micro-breweries make beer with more flavor, aimed at people who are more adventuresome in their tastes, says Maytag.

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There are more such people all the time, Maytag adds. He sees evidence of this in the last decade’s imported beer explosion. The three giant brewing companies that dominate the domestic beer market are also being challenged by microbreweries like Maytag’s. Their number has gone from just a handful a decade ago to about 160 nationally today, more than 60 of them in California.

“Our target market is people who are really interested in a more interesting beer,” Maytag says. “They want to see the color of the beer, they want to look at the head, they like the physical feel of it and the aroma of it. It’s very much like the wine experience. You pour the beer into a glass, and you swirl it a little and you take note of the aroma. . . .” He says Anchor is not a beer for guzzling out of the bottle; it usually is consumed from a glass with food.

Maytag is keenly aware of the reference he makes to wine and food because he’s involved in both fields. He owns a premium vineyard high above the Napa Valley floor, the famed York Creek Vineyard whose grapes have been made into exceptional wines by Ridge Vineyards for more than two decades. He is also chairman of the board of Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, Iowa, which produces superb cheeses including the famed Maytag Blue.

There is more to Anchor’s production than Steam Beer, though that’s the standard-bearer of the line. Not as delicate as the typical American beer, it offers a bit more richness and maltiness, with an attractive bitterness in the finish that beer connoisseurs love. Matched with grilled meats, it’s a grand treat.

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Steam Beer is made with the same bottom-fermenting yeasts as ordinary lager beer, but fermented at the higher temperature of top-fermented ale (this gives it the gassy carbonation that 19th Century Californians called “steam”). Liberty Ale, the other item Anchor produces in good quantity, is a traditional top-fermented ale with a rich, roasted aroma and an almost sweet aftertaste that pairs up very well with smoked sausages.

The most intriguing of the Anchor Steam products is called Christmas Ale. It is tradition in many breweries to make a special ale for the holidays. Anchor’s is always different and always flavored with a proprietary blend of spices. (“I can’t say what’s in it,” Maytag says. “We have a lot of competitors these days.”)

The 1989 Christmas Ale was pungent and fairly exotic, almost clove- and mint-scented. It was heavier and richer than most other ales, but with a distinctive coffee bean and chocolate aftertaste. The characteristic bitterness was offset by a nutty, toasty flavor from a high malt character.

Always made in small quantities and vintage-dated, Christmas Ale sells out soon after its annual release, traditionally the day after Thanksgiving. This year, however, it will be made in a larger supply because of the demand, Maytag says. It is an ale I would serve with food, perhaps with a cream soup, because of its intense flavor.

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Another Anchor product with a following is Old Foghorn Barleywine, a dessert-style brew of uncommon richness and complexity--and 8% alcohol, more than twice as high as regular beer. The aroma is fairly intense and forceful, with a tobacco and yeast quality and a taste that’s unctuous, sweet and rich. With its soft, honeyed finish, this product is excellent served after dinner with rich cheeses.

Anchor Porter is the darkest, most brooding drink concocted here, a traditional Porter using specially roasted dark malts and hopped to a high degree. This thick, stout-like brew is not for the weak of heart.

Four years ago, Anchor experimented with a lighter beer made largely from wheat malt. Wheat Beer caught on and is still being made. It is truly interesting, with a delicate bread-dough kind of aroma, lighter and crisper than other Anchor beers.

“If I were going to expand production, I guess it would be with the Wheat Beer because it appeals to a broader audience,” says Maytag. “But it’s never been my intention to get big.”

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Success has only spurred Maytag into looking more deeply into the lore and legends of beer. He is fascinated by the argument that beer may have been what settled man down to a sedentary existence after ages of roaming. Most historians and archeologists believe that the earliest farmers who gave up their nomadic “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle did so to cultivate barley for bread. But Maytag says that at least one theory, advanced by Prof. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania, is that agriculture developed so man could grow barley to brew beer.

A year ago he made a batch of beer according to a Sumerian recipe thousands of years old that was found on clay tablets. The process called for the beer to be made from barley malt and bread, so he leased a bakery for a day and made a lot of tiny loaves of bread. These were mixed with barley malt and Maytag made a non-hopped brew he called Ninkasi (named after the Sumerian goddess of beer) that was sold only out of the brewery.

The Ninkasi wasn’t a great beer, but it had a great story and San Franciscans bought it all within weeks of production, confirming once again the local commitment to this institution.

It’s nice to be popular. However, Maytag points out that investing in Anchor when it appeared the place would collapse in a sea of red ink was a gamble, and he says others who aim to become micro-brewery owners should think about this: He operated Anchor for a decade without making a penny, while he learned the brewer’s art and restored the brewery to its former glory.

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“The major problem with micro-breweries that want to increase their production,” he says, “is product quality.” He says even the best brew can be ruined by inexact bottling procedures or any number of microbiological nightmares that may not show up until it’s too late.

Anchor’s traditional beers are made extremely carefully, he says, with very shallow fermentation pans to make for more complex tastes, the use of rare hops from all around the world, and a number of trade secrets about which Maytag declines to discuss.

It’s this hands-on methodology that keeps Anchor from growing, despite demand greater than Maytag’s supply. “The idea isn’t to grow big,” he says. “It’s to make good beer consistently.”


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