LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD (BEER)
Edible Iowa River Valley | Winter 2009
By Renee Brincks
Newton native Fritz Maytag remembers a time when he’d look at California beer sales reports and there, at the bottom, see his own San Francisco brewery.
“Anchor Brewing always showed up as 0.0 percent, which I just thought was wonderful. I knew that we were about to turn the brewing world upside down, but the longer [the big brewers] didn’t know it, the better. We’d get our act together first,” he says. “Sure enough, one day we were at 0.1 percent, and in some ways, they’ve been trying to figure out what to do ever since.”
Forty-five years after Maytag first invested in the near-bankrupt Anchor Brewing, many craft brewers view him as the industry’s David: By returning to traditional techniques and recipes, he tossed the first stone at a Goliath collection of American companies turning out mild, mass-produced beers. In the late 1970s, fewer than 50 breweries existed nationwide. That number grew to 1,525 in 2009 – including 1,482 craft breweries – says the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group that defines the American craft brewer as small, independent and traditional.
“I’ve always just thought of Maytag as one of the pioneers in the business. He was kind of ahead of his time,” says Rob Tod, who founded Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, in the mid 1990s. “A lot of people don’t realize that it was a tough sell back then. No one understood these beers. No one knew how to sell them. Not many people had tried beers like that, so I’m sure it was an uphill battle for him for years. He was really one of the people who paved the way.”
Bottling beer was never the plan for Fritz Maytag, the son of Maytag Blue Cheese creator Fred Maytag II, and the great-grandson of F.L. Maytag, who sold his first eponymous washing machine in 1907. Even with his famous last name, Maytag enjoyed what he calls an “almost entirely perfectly normal upbringing” in small-town Newton, running through backyards and riding his bike along the streets after school. He eventually attended three years of high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts before heading west to study American literature at Stanford University.
After landing in San Francisco in the early 1960s, Maytag frequented a North Beach neighborhood restaurant called the Old Spaghetti Factory. There, owner Fred Kuh poured only one draft beer: Anchor Steam, first brewed in San Francisco in 1896.
“In those days, brewpubs were not legal. You couldn’t have a brewery in a restaurant,” says Maytag. “So Fred always served Anchor Steam on draft, and only Anchor Steam on draft, because he loved the idea of a local, small brewery’s draft beer.”
It was Kuh who encouraged Maytag to visit Anchor Brewing in 1965, when financial issues had all but closed the business. After touring the brewery, then located on 8th Street, Maytag bought 51 percent for about what a used car might have cost. And, in the process, he acquired the associated debts and difficulties.
“I just did it,” he says. “I bought it, and then I tried to figure out what to do.”
For starters, Maytag set up a microscope.
“I started reading and studying and looking at the beer through the microscope to figure out why it was going sour before it was going to be sold,” he says.
After scrutinizing his own beer, Maytag researched the market. He noticed that people were paying a premium for certain imported brews.
“Most of the imports were just pretty bland lager beers, much like the American lager beers, but some of the imports were dark and rich and flavorful,” he says. “I began to get the idea that beer brewing has a history and a tradition...and almost nobody was brewing beer in a traditional way just for the sake of being traditional. Almost everybody was taking modern shortcuts.”
Based on what he learned, Maytag revamped the Anchor Steam recipe. He replaced sugar with whole malt. He traded caramel coloring for roasted malt, which was darker and had a richer flavor. On the advice of an old brew master, Maytag started brewing with clean, fresh baker’s yeast and, as he simplified the ingredients, he updated the equipment and processes used to put it all together.
The company slowly started to turn around. By 1971, two years after he became the brewery’s sole owner, Maytag began selling Anchor Steam in bottles. It took all five of the company’s employees to run the bottling line, so they simply hung a sign on the door that said, “Closed for bottling.”
Maytag still has the sign.
“Each person had many jobs,” he says. “We were just hands-on brewers from the ground up, and every one of our employees was thoroughly versed in almost every aspect of brewing and brewing history. It was remarkable and fun and the kind of thing that only happens to people who are crazy and just get totally immersed in something.”
Anchor Brewing moved to its current location, on San Francisco’s Portrero Hill, in 1979. The company now bottles Liberty Ale, Anchor Porter and several seasonal beers, among others. Despite opportunities for continued expansion, however, Maytag carefully manages Anchor’s growth.
“I have purposely chosen to be small,” he says. “I had, early on, an instinctive, deep fear of things getting out of control – of the company getting bigger than I could understand, bigger than we could manage, too big to change what it was doing or too big for me, and others, to know everyone in the company.”
Maytag attributes his perspective, in part, to what he learned from his father’s management of Maytag Dairy Farms. Maytag himself has guided the family’s blue cheese business since his father passed away in 1962.
“I like small things,” he says. “I have consciously tried extremely hard to stay small there, for some of the reasons we did with the brewery. I think that’s always been a theme as a company: the old fashioned, simple, high-quality and hand-made cheese.”
In 2008, the James Beard Foundation presented its lifetime achievement award to Maytag, calling him a pioneer of American microbrewing and citing Maytag Dairy Farms as a leader in the country’s artisanal cheese renaissance. The foundation also named him outstanding wine and spirits professional in 2003. Maytag believes that award legitimized the craft brewing industry and solidified beer’s place in the food world.
“We turned the world upside down. And it’s been great fun,” he says of himself and other craft brewers. “We’ve brought more of an attitude that brewing is wholesome and cheerful and pleasant and decent, and more or less good for you, if you don’t over-indulge. We brought real pride and curiosity and quality awareness to the brewing industry, whereas it was in danger of just becoming the big bad factory brewers making flavorless beer.”
Someone would have led the way if his brewery had not, Maytag adds, but 1960s San Francisco, with its openness to “wild, creative ideas,” was the right time and place for change. He points to what he calls “a revolution and a renaissance” in food, wine and beer that has changed attitudes throughout the United States and the world.
“You have to be wonderfully wealthy, as a society, to be able to afford to worry about whether the vegetables are pure and clean and whether the cows are happy, but what a joy to be able to get there,” he says. “I’m sure we were some of the ones who led the way, but I don’t think we were utterly brilliant in thinking this up all by ourselves. We were just part of a broad movement that was happening.”
Brewer Mason Groben, who will start selling his own Madhouse Brewing Company selections in early 2010, still attributes the resurgence of unique, flavorful beers to Maytag. His brewery is located in Newton – in a building that formerly housed part of the Maytag appliance company.
“He definitely started it all,” Groben says.
Today, Fritz Maytag continues to expand his portfolio. This year saw the 41st harvest at his York Creek Vineyards. He used to just sell the grapes to other winemakers, but in recent years he’s started blending his own wines in a small winery across the street from the brewery. Maytag also launched Anchor Distilling in 1993, using traditional methods to create small-batch spirits such as Junípero Gin and Old Potrero Whiskey.
This fall, Anchor Brewing created a limited edition, draft-only ale to commemorate 30 years in its current building. When he thinks about those early years at the brewery, Maytag remembers both the excitement and the effort.
“Broadly speaking, when I look back at this time, I admit now that I was crazy,” he says. “I was just insanely unable or unwilling to imagine failing. I was just determined to make a go of it.”