Joe Sixpack: Sale of industry-changing Anchor Brewing triggers a few shudders

By Joe Sixpack
Philadelphia Daily News

Daily News Beer Reporter

THE FATHER of the American craft beer movement is moving on, and that has some beer lovers worried.

Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing, said last week that he would sell his San Francisco brewery to a pair of investors with little background in brewing. The news set off a wave of fear and loathing among some beer fans worried that the iconic brand would somehow change for the worse.

Within minutes of the announcement, blogger and author Brian Yaeger posted an item that asked, “Will the Sale of Anchor Mean the Death of Quality at S.F.’s Revolutionary Brand?”

Yaeger cried: “Why, Fritz? Why did you sell Anchor Brewing? And does it mean the end of an era for craft brewing both in San Francisco and across the nation?”

It’s not hard to understand the anxiety.

Maytag’s purchase of the faltering brewery in 1965 was, in the words of historian Maureen Ogle, “a transformative moment in American brewing.” It was a dismal period of corporate consolidation and generic flavor, as regional breweries disappeared and the big guys produced bland industrial lagers.

Maytag, whose great-grandfather founded the washing machine company, would reverse that decline by establishing the model for a small, independent brewery selling high-quality, full-flavored products made with superior barley malt. More than 1,500 new American breweries would follow his course in the next 45 years.

Anchor’s accomplishments under Maytag are too numerous to review here, but a short list would include:

_ The revival of steam beer (Anchor Steam) and porter (Anchor Porter).

_ The first modern American barleywine (Old Foghorn).

_ The re-establishment of the Christmas beer tradition (Our Special Ale).

Should we worry about Anchor’s fate?

The new owners, called the Griffin Group, are money guys with big alcohol DNA. They worked for mammoth Diageo, and their claim to fame is increasing sales of an overpriced brand of vodka (Skyy).

Nonetheless, Maytag told me in an interview last week: “These guys have impressed me tremendously with the fact that they’re not buying the company because we sell 88,000 barrels of beer. They’re buying it for Anchor’s reputation and its position in the marketplace. My life work has been all about building quality and integrity, not volume. . . . These guys understand what Anchor means, and it’s in as good as hands as I could possibly leave it.”

Meanwhile, Jay Brooks of the Oakland Tribune blogged after meeting one of the new partners that “I think fans can rest assured that the brand will be in good hands that have no intention of messing about with it.”

Fair enough.

Still, Maytag’s departure is a harbinger of broader generational change.

Much of the American microbrewing revolution was built on the strong, idiosyncratic personalities of visionary, risk-taking homebrewers who turned their hobby into a thriving industry. Instead of advertising on TV, they connected with their customers, one by one, by sharing their stories and personally pouring samples.

Today, the brewers are the brand.

So, you can’t help but think: What happens when they’re gone?

Remember, Pete Slosberg sold his trendsetting Pete’s Wicked, and it caved; the founder of America’s first brewpub, Bert Grant, retired, and his brewery disappeared.

The good news is that there is already a second generation of craft brewers out there, pouring beer: Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Rob Tod of Allagash, Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing and many others have already taken up the mantle from Maytag.

And behind them, an even younger generation is making waves at places like The Bruery in California and Roy-Pitz in Chambersburg, Pa.

I’d like to think this is Maytag’s final accomplishment: A legacy that encourages change.

“Joe Sixpack” by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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