Anchors Away

New owners Keith Greggor, far left and Tony Foglio with Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. (Gene X. Hwang/Orange Photography)

Written by Greg Kitsock for The Washington Post

Two weeks ago, the beer world was jolted by the announcement that Fritz Maytag had sold the Anchor Brewing Co., in San Francisco to the Griffin Group, an investment and consulting company best known for growing Skyy Vodka into a multibillion-dollar brand.

Normally, buyouts and mergers in the beer business are nothing to jump up and down about. In January, Long Trail Brewing Co. in Bridgewater, Vt., acquired rival Otter Creek Brewing Co., 40 miles up the road. In March, Ken Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, Calif. announced he was selling his business to Trey White, a former executive with United States Beverage Co.

As of this writing, Pabst Brewing Co. is still on the sale block, in case you’re shopping around for a unique birthday or graduation gift.

But to beer connoisseurs, Anchor is an icon. “It was a very big shock. I thought they were going to stay independent forever and ever,” says Dave Coleman, beer manager for the Big Hunt bar in Dupont Circle.

Maytag, scion of the Newton, Iowa, appliance company, was a Stanford graduate mulling his career options when he heard his local brewery was about to call it quits. Anchor Brewing at the time had a reputation for inconsistent, often sour beer; its owner was in such financial straits that he was said to be selling empty wooden barrels for 50 cents apiece so he could pay the toll on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Maytag used his inheritance to buy the ramshackle operation and modernize it, eventually relocating it to the former Chase & Sanborn coffee plant on Mariposa Street. He improved the brewery’s flagship brand, Anchor Steam, a lager fermented at warm temperatures in large shallow vessels to give it fruity, alelike overtones.

Anchor also revived styles that hadn’t been made in this country for decades: a porter fermented with a top-fermenting ale yeast (Anchor Porter); a wheat ale (Anchor Summer Beer); a barleywine (Old Foghorn); a spiced winter wassail (Our Special Ale); and a low-alcohol table beer (Anchor Small Beer).

Anchor’s Liberty Ale, first brewed in 1975 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, was perhaps the first beer to fully showcase the resiny, fruity properties of Pacific Northwest hops. In 1996, Maytag opened a small distillery, producing Old Protrero rye whiskey and Junipero gin.

Anchor was the first modern craft brewery — in the sense of a brewery that specializes in full-flavored styles made without corn or rice adjuncts.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at Maytag’s exit from the beer business. He’s now 72. “I’ve known Fritz for a number of years,” says Keith Greggor, chief executive of the Griffin Group. “He has too much to manage, and would rather ease off at this stage.” Maytag owns a winery (York Creek Vineyards), and oversees a dairy farm, neither of which was included in the deal.

Maytag was unavailable for comment, but in a recent interview with San Francisco radio station KQED, he said he had been searching for the right buyer for over five years. “These guys have the right ideas,” he said of his successors. “This is a small company with highly specialized products.”

Maytag will remain with Anchor for several months until terms of the deal are completed, and will retain the title of chairman emeritus.

New owner Greggor stresses that he would not tinker with Anchor beers, but says “we want Anchor to become a little bit more competitive in the marketplace. It’s not as well known as it should be, as the original craft beer. In due course we will be ramping up production.”

For the past decade, Anchor’s production has hovered around 90,000 barrels a year, while more recent operations such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing Companies have leapfrogged Anchor to attain much larger outputs.

The Griffin Group also owns a minority stake in BrewDog, a Scottish microbrewery known for strong and aggressively flavored beers such as Tokyo (an oak-aged imperial stout flavored with jasmine and cranberries) and Sink the Bismarck (a super-IPA whose record-setting 41 percent alcohol-by-volume content is achieved through freeze distillation).

Greggor says the controversial (beer or a spirit?) Sink the Bismarck will be arriving on American shores (“I think this summer”) in 375-milliliter bottles selling for about $60 apiece. “We need to repackage it in bottles with resealable closures,” he says. “This is not something you consume at one session.”

Greggor calls BrewDog founders James Watt and Martin Dickie “the next generation of craft brewing.”

“Fritz Maytag was a maverick in his day; these young men in Scotland have similar characteristics,” he says.

Long-range plans are to brew the BrewDog beers under license in the United States. At Anchor perhaps? Greggor says “we’re going to do it, but we’re not sure where and when.”

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