After nearly four decades of leading the craft brewing industry, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewery is stepping off the stage. Far from the end of an era, this sale of Anchor feels more like the next chapter, with a couple of industry talents stepping in with plans for a “Center of Excellence” to further support the culture and heritage of craft beer and spirits.
The craft beer industry is replete with giants, but none has achieved the stature and reverence of Fritz Maytag. The story of his rescue of the foundering San Francisco brewery during the 1970s is well-known. However, it overshadows the broader impact that he has had on craft beer.
In the face of industry skepticism, Fritz clearly set his sail to a different wind than his confreres of 40 years ago. Ever the romantic, he saw brewing as one of civilization’s noble crafts. Not only did he commit his company to brewing beers unlike any others, he believed customers should—and would—pay what the beers were worth. After all, it was beer, the ancient beverage, and not a commodity like toothpaste.
Turning his back on the reigning style of the day, light lager, Fritz searched brewing history for style progenitors. While the preservation of steam beer is an oft-told tale, few know of the first American IPA, Anchor’s Liberty Ale. Fritz brought back traditional porter, revived the tradition of a spiced holiday beer, created the first American barley wine, and brewed the first American wheat beer since Prohibition. Furthermore, Anchor might have been the first American brewery to embrace the magnum as a viable package, changing the presentation of fine beer.
A lesser-known story concerns the first ever archaeological beer, Ninkasi, in 1989. Yes, others have built businesses around historical recipes, but none took it to the lengths that Fritz did. Picture a room full of brewers all sipping Fritz’s recreation of a 4,000 year-old Sumerian brew through long straws from communal vessels. While never a commercial success, Ninkasi broke new ground.
Finally, there is Anchor Brewery, itself. In an age of high-speed bottling lines, computerized brewhouses and stainless steel tank farms, Fritz crafted Anchor into something resembling an Old World institution. Wood, ceramic and glass are everywhere. Fritz’s office sat right between the copper onion domes and the open squares on one side, and the tasting room on the other.
I have yet to meet the team that will lead Anchor Brewery. However, they have roots in the industry, including a strong relationship with Scottish tyro BrewDog. Although Fritz has always been passionate about the craft of beer, the commerce of beer was far from his way of life. The new owners seem well-equipped for that arena. Furthermore, as the scion of a legendary American dynasty, with roots in the agrarian Midwest, I believe Fritz is not walking away from his work of art. The proposed Center for Excellence has his vision all over it.
The spirit that Fritz breathed into Anchor could be institutionalized in this Center, radiating out to other breweries. The commercial side of the brewery could also get a shot in the arm. It might actually result in greater access to Anchor’s beers. Liberty Ale on draft in North Carolina? Now that’s cause for salivating.
This editorial originally appeared in July 2010 issue, Vol. 31, No. 3