The End of an Era: Anchor Brewing Passes to New Owners…

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After arriving in Phnom Penh from a six hour bus trip from Siem Reap in northern Cambodia, I learned this afternoon of the sale of the iconic Anchor Brewing Company to new owners. As I’m on vacation and am concentrating on local stories (some beer related) while half-way around the world, I won’t comment on the matter at length. Instead, I’ll point you to Stan’s piece on the situation and the brewery’s curious, unconventional market approach. From its glowing copper brewhouse to its pleasantly antiquated label artwork, Anchor has long seemed more like a placeholder in history than a true competitor in the American beer marketplace. Consumers were able to find Anchor Steam across the country, from local pubs to airport bars and big chain restaurants. But with its equally antiquated bottle dating system, it was always a risk to buy almost any Anchor product in the bottle outside of certain West Coast markets. The few Anchor Liberty bottles I’ve purchased out of a nostalgic respect for Anchor reinforced that unfortunate situation. While I greatly respect Fritz Maytag and the legacy his brewery leaves, the idea that a brewery can remain small and great instead of necessitating an IPO or massive growth is hard to reconcile with Anchor’s distribution to markets all across the country. I definitely agree with the former statement but Anchor lived the approach of spreading itself pretty thin across the country into hard-to-maintain markets far from home.

With Maytag moved into an emeritus position, the new owners, the Griffin Group, will have to learn to rely on something more than legacy, heritage, and reputation to justify the sales of its brands. With that said, I shudder at the thought of a SKYY Vodka team extending the revered Anchor brand name to a new line of boysenberry triple wits aged on balsa. The final takeaway from this new operation is the continuing trend of breweries changing hands, as I’ve long discussed on this site.

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Celebrating The Success Of Craft Beer…

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Craft beer is an amazing thing that we too often take for granted. For many younger drinkers, there has never been a time when they couldn’t buy a pint or sixer of craft beer. The selection may have been limited and its availability far less than today, but it was still there, creating a whole another level of consciousness for a new generation of imbibers.

So much of modern day craft beer, especially among beer geeks, is about looking forwards, all the time searching for the new, the elusive next big thing. We have entire websites dedicated to scouring new label approvals from the federal government even before breweries have decided to announce their plans. We have beer trading lists that allow us never to have the same beer twice, as if opening a second bottle were some sort of social faux-pas or a sign of the dreaded brand loyalty of our beer loving elders.

While we should certainly celebrate the new, to herald advances in palates and processes, this year is also a good time to reflect upon where we’ve been as a craft community and how we came to have such a bounty of excellent beers in front of us. For this year we celebrate several impressive anniversaries of craft beer pioneers. For it was thirty five years ago that Fritz Maytag took interest in the near folding Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco and laid the groundwork for a movement to follow fifteen years later.

It was thirty years ago that avid homebrewers helped Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi cobble together a rag tag brewing system, made from dairy tanks and a soda pop bottler. And so in the small town of Chico, California, Sierra Nevada was born, in turn giving birth to its eponymous and style defining Pale Ale. Sierra Nevada is rightfully celebrating this milestone and brewing anniversary with the industry at large, cognizant of the truth that craft brewers are not competitors so much as compatriots in the revolution of better beer. From fewer than fifty breweries to more than fifteen hundred today, Sierra Nevada is embarking on a series of collaborative beers with several of the people who helped American craft beer from its earliest days, including Fritz Maytag, Charlie Papazian, Jack McAuliffe, founder of the now-defunct New Albion Brewery, and writer Fred Eckhardt. These beers will be released throughout the year and continuing through the company’s anniversary on November 15, with proceeds going to select charities.

On the opposite side of the country, a business man clad in a dark navy suit and carrying a small briefcase started visiting bars across the Boston area to tell them about his dream. With its debut on Patriot’s Day in April of 1985, the now ubiquitous Samuel Adams Boston Lager and its founder, Jim Koch, celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. Growing from a few bottles to 500 barrels the first year, it is entirely doubtful that Koch ever dreamed his brewery would live to become the largest such American operation, and within just a quarter century’s time.

As with Sierra Nevada, Anchor, the Boulder Beer Company, and many other craft brewing pioneers celebrating their anniversaries this year, the Boston Beer Company has never lost its passion for beer, even while growing in size. This year it will team up with the world’s oldest brewery, the famous Weihenstephan of Germany, to produce a collaborative, Champagne-style beer with 10-percent alcohol, all within the Reinheitsgebot.

Even amidst the constantly buzzing news of special release beers from exciting new breweries from Dallas to Denmark, let’s take a moment to remember the craft brewing pioneers and help them celebrate their achievements. We are fortunate to have such a rich and growing culture of craft beer in America, all a direct result of the hard work from these generous brewers.

-Article appeared in Issue 36 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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You Know What Would Make For An Interesting Beer Festival…

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…one dedicated entirely to small beers. By that, I don’t necessarily mean low alcohol beers but those made with the second runnings of a larger brew, such as a barleywine, imperial stout, or quad. The Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco has long produced such a beer, called Small Beer, from the second runnings of its popular Old Foghorn Barleywine. From its website, Anchor gives the reasons for producing such an unusual beer:

The tradition of brewing two distinct beers from one mash has existed for thousands of years, and for centuries the term “small beer” was used in English to describe the lighter and weaker second beer. By association, the term came to mean something of little importance.

Let’s get small We make our Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale from the rich first runnings of an all-malt mash, and Anchor Small Beer is our attempt to duplicate the “small beers” of old by sparging that same mash: sprinkling warm water over the Old Foghorn mash after the first wort has run off, thereby creating a second, lighter brew from the resulting thinner wort. Technically, both beers are “ales” because they are made with top-fermenting yeast.

We believe you will find Anchor Small Beer delicious—similar to what modern brewers call a “bitter”—and we hope you will also enjoy the idea of reviving an ancient brewing tradition, which is something of great importance.

I’ll add another. In an age of economy–by which I mean conservation of resources and funds–it hardly makes sense in many cases to simply discard grain that still has enough combined sugars to produce a second beer. And in this age of inventive brewing, brewing small beers doesn’t mean every resulting offering has to taste like Anchor’s Small Beer.

Such an event, filled with small beers of all flavors and varieties, is an example of what I have been talking about with the need to redefine “extreme beer.”

Maybe we’ll see some at this year’s Extreme Beer Festival. Somehow I doubt it…

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WWFD: What Would Fritz Do? (about the slow death of seasonal beer)…

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It’s in light-hearted moments with a beautiful, brimming pint in front of me that my thoughts turn to days when things were not nearly so cheerful for flavorful beer lovers. In those dark days, which largely passed before my legal drinking age, things were grim. With the tales of our beer elders ringing in my head, I picture a Orwellian world where brewers painted with only a single, bleak color, one in which a fizzy yellow monotony reigned until craft brewers, as in Apple’s classic 1984 parody ad, threw their mash rakes through the glass ceiling of low expectations.

In distinguishing themselves from mainstream, macro beers, early microbrewers tried all sorts of ideas. Some added extra hops to their beers, while others sought refuge in passive, ubiquitous ambers. According to beer lore at this point, one of the earliest craft brewers, Fritz Maytag, initiated the program of releasing specialty beers into the market at different times during the year. Starting with his super hoppy Anchor Liberty Ale in 1975, the grandfather of all American IPA’s to follow, and continuing with his paradigm shattering Our Special Ale, Maytag and the Anchor Brewing staff appreciated that consumers would be interested in experiencing a departure from their regularly scheduled beers. Like a restaurant changing its menu to reflect new seasonally appropriate fare, early craft brewers offered their own products designed to suit the seasons. With deep roots in European brewing history, the seasonal brewing practice was often the result of necessity, such as when brewers produced heartier beers to sustain themselves when brewing wasn’t possible or in honor of religious and political occasions.

As with the changing of leaves for Vermonters and the first snow fall for Minnesotans, beer enthusiasts often greet today’s seasonal beers as just another event in a calendar year. And while some of these beers spark quick flurries of excitement upon initial release, beer snobs spend more time lamenting perceived recipe changes from year to year than celebrating their good fortune in having such a rotating selection of diverse beers. Despite this attitude, seasonal beers remain one of the most potent tools in the craft brewer’s marketing arsenal. While other alcohol producers are stuck with constant, year-round products, ingenious craft brewers get to inject more enthusiasm into their customer bases every couple months. Beyond the beer geeks, the general public’s excitement over the release of Summer and Pumpkin beers isn’t something craft brewers should take for granted, especially as such sales now constitute the fastest growing segment of the craft beer marketplace.

Accordingly, brewers should take care not to slay the golden egg giving goose. As with the presidential campaigning cycle, the seasonal beer release calendar starts earlier and earlier every year. Where cooling Octoberfest beers once only appeared in early to mid September, we now start hearing about them amidst August’s summer heat and Summer beers seemingly appear out of nowhere in the rainy, dreary days of early April. As distributors and retailers clamor to get earlier access to these specialty releases, some of the magic of their seasonality starts to fade, like the appeal of a ski vacation in July. Just as brewers take care in the naming of their seasonal beers—try selling a Christmas Ale come New Year’s Day—they should also take care in respecting the role of the seasonal beer. And while many beer enthusiasts would love to get their hands on a malty Octoberfest in May, such ubiquity takes away from the special nature of these releases.

Craft brewers should always remember the role seasonal beers have played in expanding their customer bases and their bottom lines. For craft brewers tempted to focus their attention on high priced, limited edition beers that appeal to a tiny fraction of beer lovers, it’s telling that the original craft brewer, Anchor Brewing, has not embraced the high alcohol and hop bomb craze. These days, craft brewers might do well to inquire, WWFD: what would Fritz do?

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