It’s not as if Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag Corporation that makes all those nifty appliances, ever aimed to single-handedly launch the craft beer industry. It’s just that when he bought a dying San Francisco brewery in 1965, in his words, “I thought I was helping a little, local curiosity survive.”
That’s the one-line explanation of how Anchor Brewing, originally established in 1896, took its first step toward revolutionizing American beer fifty years ago. Maytag, 78, retired in 2010 to his home in Northern California’s wine country after selling Anchor to spirits industry veterans Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. What, you thought craft breweries selling to larger companies or private equity groups was new? He recalls the early days of the brewery as sharply as ever. And keep in mind: He took over a full decade before the first American “microbrewery” was built and 15 years ahead of Sierra Nevada’s founding.
Alas, the brewery that Maytag became the majority owner of brewed mostly infected beer. By his own admission, Anchor Steam was “often sour,” and not in the way that makes today’s Brett-heads salivate. But more than his investment, recalls Maytag, “I was just too proud to give up … I refused to admit it could fail.” So he took to visiting small British breweries and threw himself into studying science. “I spent more time looking through a microscope than any brewer today.”
By 1970, Maytag had spearheaded a turnaround. “We went from medieval to the most modern small brewery in the world.” What’s more, the brewery was profitable by 1975 and had introduced several firsts among America’s not-yet-called-craft-brewing world such as a porter, barleywine and—most auspiciously—Liberty Ale, the first American dry-hopped ale that paved the way for today’s IPAs. “Today we think of (Liberty) as an IPA,” chuckles Maytag. “Back then it was radical.”
These days, it’s difficult to be truly innovative or even to come up with an original name. Anchor trademarked the name “Steam” in 1981, hence why others refer to that beer’s style as a California common ale. Cease-and-desists have become commonplace even among small, regional brewers. When Maytag noticed those issues seeping into the industry, his approach, which predated Google, was serious and seriously funny. “I used to send brewers the OED,” says Maytag, referring to the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m guessing it wasn’t the 20-volume, 137-pound set, but still, it made a statement. And if that maneuver wasn’t clear enough, along with it was a note: “You’ll find tens of thousands of words that are not trademarked for beer.”
Today’s industry is a far cry from the one he pioneered fifty years ago. There were more than 1,700 breweries operating when Maytag sold Anchor and there are some 4,000 open now. “It’s astonishing. It’s beyond my comprehension,” says Maytag. “I try not to look at the beer section (in stores), but I can’t help it. I try not to look at the draft handles, but I can’t help it.”
“It’s a different world from the one I was involved in … I wouldn’t dream of taking any credit.” But it belongs to him. And though he stepped away from Anchor, now only meeting with Greggor and Foglio occasionally, Maytag concedes, “Mind you: I dream about it every night.”