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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Will the Sale of Anchor Mean the Death of Quality at S.F.'s Revolutionary Brand?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 12:15 PM

click to enlarge Fritz Maytag in 2005. - BRIAN YAEGER
  • Brian Yaeger
  • Fritz Maytag in 2005.
Why, Fritz ― why did you sell Anchor Brewing? And does it mean the end of an era for craft brewing both in San Francisco and across the nation?

Of the 4,000 breweries operating in America at the end of the 19th century, a little over 1,500 were back up and running again after the repeal of Prohibition. But within decades, American beer, on the whole, had been homogenized into a light-bodied, patently yellow product manufactured by just over 40 companies ― the rest having been cannibalized by competitors or simply run to the ground.

When Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor in 1965, that singular act ― the whim of a young man with an inheritance, who'd moved from Iowa, where his great-grandfather revolutionized home appliances with the introduction of the electric washing machine ― revolutionized beer.

Forget the business about it being a "San Francisco original since 1896." Anchor as we know it has been around since 1965, when, in its first decade, the brand not only cleaned up its trademarked steam beer (a lager brewed with ale yeast at warmer temperatures), but introduced the first modern porter, the first modern dry-hopped beer (Liberty Ale), the first modern barleywine (Old Foghorn), and first modern spiced seasonal offering (Our Special Ale, aka Anchor Christmas). All before any other microbrewery had even sprung up (The first would be Sonoma's short-lived New Albion Brewery, in 1976). The first modern wheat beer, Anchor's Summer Beer, debuted in 1983. Today, dry-hopping pale or India pale ales is commonplace, as are dark-roasted stouts and porters, but only because of the chain reaction Anchor ignited.

Now, after 45 years, news broke this week that Maytag, 72, sold the company he created to Griffin Group partners Keith Greggor, 55, and Tony Foglio, 64.

click to enlarge The Potrero Hill brewery employs only about 70 people. - CAG2012/FLICKR
  • cag2012/Flickr
  • The Potrero Hill brewery employs only about 70 people.
Griffin made its money developing Skyy vodka, and now has a spirits importing company and part of Scotland's BrewDog, famous for stunt beers such as the 32-percent alcohol Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

Again, we ask, why? By industrial standards, Anchor was small, employing around 70 people, including the man who's been its master brewer since 1971, Mark Carpenter, and Maytag's nephew, John Dannerback. Some five years ago, when we had the opportunity to ask Maytag point blank where he saw Anchor Brewing and Distilling going (oh yeah, Maytag also launched the craft distilling renaissance when he began developing traditional rye whiskeys and herbal gins in 1993), he deftly avoided a direct answer, responding only that he was in favor of family businesses, small businesses.

No one on the inside is talking about how or why Fritz Maytag made the decision to sell, but it's hard not to feel like we're all losing something here. After everything he's done for the beer, spirits, and wine industries (yes, Maytag also owns a winery; his York Creek Vineyards does not appear to be part of the current sale), it's entirely understandable that Maytag would want to step back. He's a grandpa. He's more than earned his retirement.

And we aren't necessarily losing the craft brewing industry's progenitor, since Anchor will remain intact. But when the new owners tell the Chronicle that "they plan to expand Anchor Brewing's operations and cement its position as a font of artisanal beers and spirits" ― excuse us, but Anchor cemented its position as a font of artisanal beers way back in the '70s.

As for the planned expansion, the official press release offered some insight:

Anchor Brewers & Distillers (Griffin Group) intends to establish a "Center of Excellence" in San Francisco for craft brewers and artisan distillers from around the world. An epicenter of development, education, entertainment and innovation, all designed to further contribute to the culture and heritage of craft beer and artisan spirits.
We wonder how Maytag, now Anchor's Chairman Emeritus, feels about that in light of his comments to us of just a few years ago. "If we wanted to become a tourist mecca," he said, "we could probably have thousands of people in the brewery. We don't. Our little company is real small.... We try to discourage people who just want to go someplace. Go to Alcatraz. What we want are brewing enthusiasts."

In the end, no decision of Maytag's should be questioned, or offered up for reproach ― what he created is both a national and a civic treasure. But a plea to those who would seek to water down the Zeus among the pantheon of craft brewers: Please remain brewing enthusiasts and not opportunists.

Note: Anchor brewery tours are still being offered twice daily on weekdays well into June, by appointment only. Call 863-8350 for reservations. Anchor Brewing Co., 1705 Mariposa (at De Haro).

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Brian Yaeger


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