If there's a Robert Mondavi of the beer world, it's Fritz Maytag.             

While Mondavi may have possessed a greater vision of the eventual success of California wines, Maytag simply led the beer industry by example.

The Anchor Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in the United States. In its earliest form, Anchor opened in 1851 in San Francisco, California. In the days of the California Gold Rush, a German brewer named Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco and opened a brewery. In 1896, German brewer Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel, Jr. bought Brekle's old brewery and rechristened it Anchor, as a paean to the brewery's coastal location.

With the purchase of the brewery, Baruth and Schinkel bought their way into American brewing history. The pair inherited a long tradition of brewing what had come to be known as "steam beer", a concoction born of necessity. In the days before refrigeration, many German immigrant brewers chose to set up shop in Midwestern cities adjacent to adequate reserves of water for one very important reason: the ready availability of ice to cool their products. As the brewing locale of warm San Francisco failed to provide an adequate supply of ice, steam beer was born.

Steam beer, a name trademarked and vigorously protected by the Anchor Brewing Company, is often called the only style of beer invented in America. In creating steam beer, old-time brewers had to make due without the aid of ice to cool ferment their lager beer. Instead, the brewers produced a lager beer and fermented it at higher than normal temperatures in wide, shallow holding tanks. This method produced a hybrid beer, a cross between mild, cold-fermented lager beers and fruitier, warm-fermented ale beers. In 1960, after a brief closing, Lawrence Steese bought Anchor Brewing and moved it to a new location. Despite efforts by Steese to resurrect the brewery, Anchor was again in trouble by 1965. In the annals of beer industry lore, that was when one bartender helped save the brewery and influenced the rise of American craft brewing.

In the Italian neighborhood of North Beach, a young Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag appliance company and son of the inventor of Maytag Blue Cheese, saddled up to the bar at the Old Spaghetti Factory for a beer. While enjoying a pint of Anchor Steam, Maytag learned from Kuh that he should enjoy it while it lasted, as the brewery was closing down. Kuh then suggested that the recent Stanford graduate go visit the brewery before it closed for good.

As Maytag tells it, his visit to the brewery was love at first sight. He quickly bought a 51 percent share of the brewery for five thousand dollars, saving the brewery from the jaws of bankruptcy. In 1969, Maytag became sole owner of the brewery, and he toiled for another six years to make the brewery profitable. By 1975, Maytag began producing a series of seasonal beers, becoming the first American craft brewer to do so. Over the next twenty years, Maytag and Anchor would serve as pioneers for the craft brewing movement.

In 1977, Anchor moved to its current home on Mariposa Street on Potrero Hill. Located in an old coffee roastery, the present Anchor Brewery is an art deco delight. The building gives off a feeling of 1950, and as visitors ascend the stairs to the brewhouse, the anticipation builds. Moving through the doors, visitors find themselves in perhaps the happiest office environment imaginable. Anchor's secretarial staff is treated to unbeatable views of the beautiful copper brewing kettles located just beyond a glass partition. The facility oozes history, and the third-story brewery has sweeping views of downtown San Francisco.

The 125-barrel brewhouse produces 6000 cases a day. The staff brews four times per day, five days a week. Eighty-percent of Anchor's products is consumed in the San Francisco area, and Steam beer accounts for 70 percent of all beer sold. The brewery presently distributes beer in all 50 states and six countries, including Japan and Germany.

A tour of the facility is an unstated requirement for any beer lover traveling in Northern California. It also happens to be one of the most impressive opportunities for consumers to learn about the beer business and brewing. The tour guide, a white-lab coat wearing young woman in her twenties, carefully explains the benefits of krausening and natural carbonation versus artificial, forced carbonation, and quickly berates bar owners for using lemons to garnish Anchor's Summer beer. She further suggests Anchor's hoppy, flavorful Old Foghorn barleywine as a thoughtful alternative to port, and suggests drinkers enjoy it with cheese and desserts.

The tour ranges through the brewery's stunning brewhouse to its heavenly hop room, where the different varieties sit in fragrant, sweet bales, seductively inviting hopheads to indulge a whiff or two. The tour ends in the historic brewery's storied tasting room, a well-apportioned bar immersed in photos and other pieces of historic relevance from the brewery.

Produced from the second runnings of the mash from the brewery's celebrated barleywine and released in sloping 22-ounce bottles, Anchor's Small Beer is a unique offering in American beer. No other American craft brewer, and few other brewers in the world, produce such a beer (and one so historically lamented by writers. Shakespeare wrote in King Henry VI, "I will make it a felony to drink small beer.") The beer is a deep golden color with a slightly buttery, yeasty aroma - offering a big, floral flavor with a slight tinge of sweetness that evolves into a very bitter finish.

While in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to stop at several local brewpubs and fine drinking establishments. One of America's great pubs is the Toronado, located in the throwback Haight neighborhood. The Toronado hosts an annual barleywine festival which is the talk of the beer world and a great destination for beer travelers. Boasting a selection unparalleled in many American cities, the Toronado balances opportunity with fair prices. Its exterior and interior seem a little divey at times, but the long wooden bar offers great beers. I sampled the 2001 Alaskan Smoked Porter, the most award-winning beer in the history of the Great American Beer Festival. The smoked characters of this beer serve as a natural preservative so the 2001 and 2002 vintages on tap at the pub were a real treat. The 2001 had lost most of its otherwise powerful smoked character and had melded into a very winey, malty brew. The beer presents some plumy notes, is chewy at times, and finishes with some residual bitterness.

Perhaps my most eye-opening beer experience came across town in the North Beach neighborhood at the recently opened tied house for the Rogue Brewing Company. In the past, I have been less than impressed by Rogue's offerings. The brewery is one of the most well-reputed operations in North America, with legions of die-hard supporters who do not take kindly to criticism. It widely distributes its products, which often fall victim to lack of turn-over and the absence of freshness dating on its bottles. The products I have previously sampled often rank above par, but far below this brewery's stellar and mythic reputation. A visit to Rogue's San Francisco pub, however, served to quickly cement my status as a member of Rogue Nation.

While the airy, open pub inexplicably serves Budweiser, Miller Lite and Coors Light, it also provides 22 beers on tap, mostly offerings from the mother brewery in Oregon. Visiting Rogue's tied houses, the other two are in Oregon, provides the consumer with an opportunity to sample utterly fresh product. The pub's offerings lean towards its signature hoppy beers, with a handful of selections from the brewery's specialty X-S series. The Imperial Pils is big in bohemian flavor, with a powerful dose of Saaz hops. The Chocolate Stout served at the pub was one of the finest examples of the style I have tasted, big in chocolate and coffee flavors and a wonderful dessert beer.

Into the Valley Traveling north from San Francisco into Marin County, a quick review of local breweries and brewpubs is enough to give a beer lover fits of joy. The names read like a who's-who of American craft brewing excellence - Bear Republic, Russian River, Lagunitas, Marin, and Moylans. Every few miles on the ride to Sonoma Valley, another great beer sampling opportunity presented itself. But it was deep into the California wine valley that the best opportunities for beer sampling existed.

In the sleepy town of Calistoga, best known for its hot springs and day spas, a little inn produces some solid beers in one of the most picturesque settings in America. The inn's beer garden is set off by trellaced, viney surroundings. The inn's simple, clean beers include the Calistoga Pilsner, a zesty beer filled with Saaz flavor. The beer is not quite classic to style but remains eminently refreshing with a touch of Tettnanger hops in the finish. The bartender recommended a beer concoction, the "fuzzy squirrel", a mix of the pub's red and wheat ales. The pale ale smells enticingly of raw, unadulterated wort and is a very drinkable companion to a game of horseshoes in the inn's garden. The Calistoga Inn and Brewery demonstrates that beers can be simple, yet elegant.

Further up the highway, in the modern town of Healdsburg, lies one of America's best and most inventive brewpubs. Bear Republic is a little brewery with a growing reputation among craft beer enthusiasts. The pub is part sports bar, part eclectic left coast idealist - it celebrates life and all of its offerings. The brewery distributes its offerings in 22 ounce bottles in select markets across the country, including Massachusetts.

When I have difficulty choosing between the pub's dozen offerings, the bartender slyly suggests a sampler tray. At fifty cents per three ounce sample, the tray of twelve offerings is at once a steal and a curse. While Bear Republic's brewers produce several session beers, the brewery is best known for its palate bruising, big alcohol offerings.

The hefeweizen is 4.5 percent alcohol by volume, pale in color, and pours with a slight head. The beer is clean, light bodied and packed with characteristic banana flavors. The brewery has a sub-specialty in the oft-neglected area of Mexican beer styles. The Oso de Oro is a light Mexican lager with a spicy flavor, light tangy body, and slight grassy overtones. It employs the Negra Modelo yeast and remains a very drinkable alternative to Corona. The El Oso, or "the bear", also uses the Modelo strain, possesses a stronger bitterness bite, and is less smooth than its Oso brother.

In moving to the house's signature IPAs, the little heralded Organic IPA, a nod to the brewery's first IPA, is one of the most balanced products I have ever tasted. In truth, it is absolutely delicious. In a style often defined by boring, slightly hoppy ales or over-the-top, palate punishing beers, the Organic IPA manages to bridge the gap between hoppiness and malt flavor. Its crisp, Cascade-influenced fruity aroma is alluring. Its organic malt does not disappoint - the beer marvelously balances maltiness, while sucking every last essence out of the hops.

The brewery's XP Pale Ale, Hop Rod Rye and Racer 5 India Pale Ale are all beers with hugely growing reputations among hop heads. With the 3R Belgian Ale, the brewers blend their three top selling ales and ferment them with the house's Belgian yeast strain. The aroma is strongly hoppy, quickly breaking into hot alcohol flavors, and finishing with some residual spiciness.


On the way back to San Francisco, I stopped at another of the country's best beer bars. Located in Berkeley, within a short walk of the University of California campus, the Jupiter brewpub pours nine of its own beers as well as up to 30 of California's best craft breweries. This is beer drinkers' paradise: Customers drink 20 ounce pints of Racer X IPA from Bear Republic or Double IPA without blinking an eye. It is here that I see the beauty of West Coast beers, where quality beer is a way of life.

For beer lovers, names like Stags Leap and Arrowood do not cause fits of excitement. The beer offerings of California's wine country, however, offer libation lovers of all stripes the opportunity to celebrate the best the industry has to offer.

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Article appeared in the May 2004 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.