October, 2000: Fritz Maytag
I did the following interview with Fritz Maytag for Malt Advocate in 2000, the afternoon of WhiskyFest. We met for lunch at the Four Seasons in New York, and I talked with Fritz for two hours about brewing and distilling. It was one of the best interviews I've ever done, and I've heard from people at Anchor that Fritz thinks it is one of the best he's done as well, which pleases me.
FRITZ MAYTAG INTERVIEW: BEER
Malt Advocate: Were there any repercussions in your family when you bought Anchor, anything along the lines of "Oh my God, heís bought a brewery?"
Fritz Maytag: No, there was no repercussion. Iíve often said that I think my family was glad I was doing something, that it didnít matter what. When you have children you just want them to do something, and put their heart and soul into it.
My father died in 1962, very young, and I bought the brewery in 1965, so I didnít have to face that father-son problem. "Youíre going to do what?!" I think my mother was a gentler person and was just glad that I was doing something, anything. Of course, for many years almost everyone thought that what I was doing was a Don Quixote type of a thing, but at least I was doing something.
MA: Your family obviously had a bent for industry. Was there any kind of precursor to the kind of thing you did?
FM: I didnít realize it for quite a while, but after a few years at the brewery I began to remember that when I was a boyówe lived in Iowaómy father traveled around the state fairly often and gave talks in various contexts. Of course, he was head of the Maytag appliance company. But occasionally someone would come up to him and say "Maytag, MaytagÖ are you by any chance related to that cheese?" And he would be thrilled, because the cheese was his doing. His father had a prize herd of Holstein dairy cattle, and would show it around the country. Those were the days when improving the breed was an honorable gift that a well-to-do farmer, or a farmer with ambitions who could afford it, could give back to society. We donít think of that so much today, but improving the breed was an important thing. My fatherís father did that with Holstein dairy cows.
He had a milk business simply because if you have prize-winning dairy cows, you are going to have prize-winning milk, and youíve got to do something with it! When I was a boy there was a little truck with "Maytag" on the side of it that would bring milk to your door, and there were at least two other little dairies in town that would do the same. So when my father and his brother inherited that business, my father started the blue cheese business as a kind of personal mission. When he died I was so young and so inexperienced that I never really had a serious talk with him about it.
I now realize that it must have been a source of great pride to him when someone said "Maytag? Is that related to the cheese?" Because if your name is Maytag, they always ask if youíre related to the washing machines. I do think that had an effect on me. I could see my father thrilled at the personal recognition for something small and interesting that he had done in the food world, and I think it had an effect on me. Plus, of course, I saw dairy equipment and food being made with our name on it, which I later realized maybe had influenced me.
But other than that, no. When I was a boy, I had been interested in basic science. I loved science. I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then I discovered mathematics and soon realized I wasnít going to be a chemist. It never occurred to me that I would be a businessman, and I didnít realize that business and chemistry could connect at a wonderful level. It was a natural fit, but I had no fermentation experience.
MA: Is that why you were at Stanford, for mathematics?
FM: No, I mean that I discovered mathematics and that I couldnít do it. No, no, no, no, no.
MA: So what were you at Stanford for?
FM: I went to Stanford because I wanted to go west. I had gone to boarding school in the East, which was something my parents felt very strongly about. We lived in a very small town and my siblings and I had advantages; we were educated, and could travel, and do and see things that put us at an advantage compared to our fellow students. I think my parents were very wisely nervous that we would think we were special or something, and going off to boarding school in New England put an end to that immediately. It was a very beneficial experience, but I wanted to go west, way out west. I actually would have gone to school in the Midwest, I think, but my parents thought it was foolish to go to college near home. They had both gone a fair distance to college. They felt that you needed to grow up, and to do that you had to get out of the nest. My sister, who was in a similar situation, had chosen Stanford. I went out and visited her, and I could see that it was exactly the kind of place I wanted to go. They wore Levis to class and there were girls everywhere; that was my idea of a good university out west. Indeed, it was a good university and I had a great time there, but I was just a liberal arts student, I studied a little bit of everything.
MA: Donít say Ďjust a liberal arts student!í
FM: No, Iím a great believer in liberal arts. I just meant that I had no real specialty. I was not one of those people I used to pity, who had a mission to become an engineer, and who I thought were leading really sad lives in the sense that they just had their nose to the grindstone. Not that I was a goof-off or anything. I think liberal arts is a wonderful thing if youíre able to afford to do it.
MA: When you were at the Old Spaghetti Factory, can you describe that for me?
FM: Well, it was an amazing place. It was a restaurant in the North Beach district of San Francisco, which opened in 1956. In those days, North Beach was a marvelous combination of Bohemian, in the very best sense, and an Italian neighborhood, which gave it a kind of European quality that was just charming. Not too long afterwards, North Beach got very touristy, with topless bars, and was really destroyed as the Bohemian area. Then the whole Haight-Ashbury thing happened, and it became just crazy as opposed to Bohemian.
But in the 1950s, North Beach was a delightful place. This restaurant was opened by a guy named Fred Kuh, who was from Chicago. He told me years later that he had come out to visit a friend who took him to the Crystal Palace Market, a well-known market in San Francisco, a European-style market with stalls and individual purveyors of all sorts of things, under a big glass roof, I believe. I never actually saw it. He was overwhelmed by the richness, and the European feeling that food was celebrated, the individual purveyors were proud to be there, and there was a fabulous variety, the way there would be in Italy.
They went to the little bar there in the grocery store, and had a glass of Anchor Steam beer. His friend told him that this was the local beer. Fred told me that he vowed right there that someday he would come to San Francisco, open a restaurant, and serve Anchor Steam Beer. And he did. Very soon afterward he opened the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was a charming, low-key place. They had pasta of all kinds. It was the kind of place youíd go with a lot of friends, have a very relaxed meal, very reasonably priced, jug wine, that sort of thing. He must have had 200 chairs and every single one was different. It was a hodgepodge, had a charming jumbled quality, with oddball things on the wall. It was unique, just unique.
I was out of graduate school at that point. When I was living near Stanford, during several years of graduate school, Iíd finish my work at 10:00 or 11:00 at night and go out for a beer or two with people, several of whom were in the theater and would also be out late. Weíd have a late night get-together. I started doing the same thing in San Francisco with several of my friends who were still in the theater. The Old Spaghetti Factory was my hangout. And one night the owner said, "Have you ever been to the brewery?" I said, "No," and he said, "Well, you ought to go because itís going to close in a couple days, theyíre bankrupt." I now realize that he probably had in mind that I might invest and save it. I found out later that he himself had invested, which was actually illegal, because of tied-house laws. But he was just desperately trying to keep the brewery alive, and he had loaned them money, which was technically illegal.
He really was the catalyst. I went down to the brewery and immediately fell in love with it and bought the controlling interest, almost right there. It was just one of those things made in heaven.
MA: Youíve talked about the intensity and wonder of the feeling of "Iíve bought a brewery!" Itís not really the same these days.
FM: You canít imagine what it was like in the 1960s. I used to say I know a lot of people who own wineries, but Iíd never met anyone that owned a brewery. You can only say that in California, of course. I had been in the wine business, right about the same time I bought into the brewery. I was in the wine business in Chile with a friend. I really had studied the wine business, and was very acutely aware of what we thought of as the important segments of the small California wineries. In those days, I said I knew every winery in California that was trying to make great wine. I could count them on the fingers of my two hands. I knew the owners, I had been to the wineries, I knew the winemakers, I knew where their grapes came from if they hadnít grown them themselves. It was an easy thing to do if you were interested in wine. You got on the phone, you got in your car, and in a very short time you could get to know every single winery in California that was trying to make great wine. There were wineries that were making good wine that I wouldnít put on the list. It was a very short list.
MA: What makes steam beer unique?
FM: I would say itís like all great, good beers. Itís a unique set of circumstances. Itís the philosophy. To explain how we make Anchor Steam you have to look at the series, not one or two things. We have profound respect for tradition and authenticity with a wild enthusiasm for modern production methods: purity of materials and cleanliness. We still do a bunch of old-fashioned things: the beers are all naturally carbonated, some are dry-hopped. I said Liberty Ale was the only all-malt, dry-hopped naturally carbonated ale in the world when it was first brewed. No one ever corrected me.
MA: When you were drinking the Anchor Steam then, was it roughly the way it tastes now?
FM: Unfortunately, it was frequently not very good. It was sour. Thatís one reason I canít drink Belgian-style beers. I realize they are perfectly legitimate, but I made beer like that by accident for quite a while, and I just canít stand it. I say that almost like a joke on myself, I just donít have an open mind in that field. The beer was pretty bad most of the time. We changed the formula in little ways, mainly to make what I think of as an archetypal old-time beer in a general sense. For example, we went back to all-malt, which they were not. We did all kinds of little things. I started controlling the temperature. We had no temperature controls. I started choosing suitable temperatures, and the kind of barley we used, the kinds of hops we used, all the kinds of decisions a new chef would make if he took over a soup restaurant which was famous for one kind of soup. If the soup wasnít very good, you would have to start changing the soup, so we did.
MA: What did you base the changes on?
FM: I based my decisions primarily on common sense, and on reading how beers had been made all over the world. The beer weíre making now is similar; I tried not to change it radically. Itís similar to what they were trying to do, but they didnít have the knowledge, and frankly they didnít have the equipment, because they didnít have the money. The beer had lost its following, and therefore lost its profitability. Some of that may have been because the product wasnít made all that well. Of course, some of it may simply have been fashion, and the fact that it didnít sell meant they didnít have money to buy the equipment to do it right, kind of a downward spiral.
Then we started making other beers pretty soon after that. I started making Porter in 1972, I think it was. Then we made Liberty Ale in 1975 and Old Foghorn in Ď75, and Christmas Ale in Ď75, the Wheat beer was Ď84.
All of these were paradigms in their day. There werenít any wheat beers in the New World when we started making our Wheat beer.
MA: How did you even sell a wheat beer to people?
FM: We sold it only on draft for a long, long time, partly because I was afraid that it would sell very well and make the brewery much bigger than I wanted it to be. The Wheat beer really suits the more normal, the more common taste in beerólight and dry and thirst-quenching. Mind you, itís different in a few ways; itís very hoppy, very high wheat content gives it a dry quality I find charming and nice. The dry-hopping helps, and itís low in alcohol, we keep it under 3.2 [% ABW] because I like to have it low in alcohol. I think a summer beer ought to be like that. But I had a feeling right from the beginning that everybody liked it. Even my mother liked it. She told me, ĎNow I like this beer, dear,í which meant, ĎI donít like the other beers.í
But most people donít! I used to say to people in those days that I was trying to make a beer that most people donít like. Because I didnít want to make a beer like Budweiser, or like Coors, or like Heineken, I wanted to make something different. I thought that eventually there would be a market for something more flavorful. So I was a little nervous about the Wheat beer in that the tail would wag the dog. So we didnít bottle it for fear that it would sell too much, if you follow me. I used to tell everybody, including the head of Miller [Brewing Co.], ĎYouíve got to make wheat beer, we canít make enough.í Itís come true; everybody makes a wheat beer these days, or almost everybody.
MA: That pretty much drove Widmer for a while.
FM: Yes. Of course, they make a different style.
MA: Where did the idea for the wheat beer come from?
FM: It was my idea to make a cleanóI mean by that, no bacteria, no wild yeastódry, fresh, what I would call a simple summer beer. I like to say that I call the Budweiser style of beer "lawnmower beer." Itís kind of a joke, but it makes a point. If itís a hot day, and youíve mown the lawn, you donít necessarily want a Guinness, or a Bass, or an Anchor Steam, a beer with that kind of flavor and body. Maybe you want a Coors Light. I think thatís wonderful. Thereís a big place in this world for light, thirst-quenching beers. If you donít admit that, youíre just being foolish. Of course, thereís a place for it, and most people prefer that kind of beer. I wanted to make a beer like that, but I wanted to prove that we could make a lawnmower beer that was really interesting and really distinctive. When we first started making wheat beer, it had more wheat in it than any other wheat beer in the world as far as we could find, two-thirds [of the grain bill]. Itís very hard to make a beer with that much wheat, because wheat doesnít have any husks. But I wanted it to be fresh and simple and clean, instead of tart oróa lot of wheat beers use a yeast that gives the beer a clovey or phenolic quality. I donít like those. I wanted to make a real clean, simple one. I think it was the only wheat beer that was like that at the time, anywhere. We used our regular ale yeast for it, which I thought was a good idea.
MA: Letís go back to the brewery. At one time you told me that it was the last of the medieval breweries. Can you explain what you mean by that?
FM: It was the last of the pre-modern breweries. We had no refrigeration. We had only one pump, which was not very well designed, or sanitized or cleaned properly. It just got kind of rinsed. You just canít believe how primitive it all was. All the equipment was handmade. The mash-tun was handmade, and not handmade in the German craftsmanship tradition, just made up by a sheet metal guy. It was unbelievable.
It was six years from the last medieval brewery to the most modern small brewery in the world. Six of us dragged it into the modern age. We were sterile filtering, aseptically bottling, an all-malt beer. We were the most traditional and most modern brewery. You had to be pretty smart to see it, it was a crumby old building. When people who knew brewing would come and say "My God, this is a masterpiece," I was thrilled. I supplemented the old equipment with new stainless steel and proper pumps, improved it and standardized it. When we built our new brewery, we really knew what we were doing. It was really unbelievably simple and primitive, that old brewery.
MA: Was there a low point after you bought the brewery?
FM: [Long pause.] I havenít thought about that for a long time.
MA: Iím sorry to bring it up!
FM: No, itís funny, itís a good story. If you win the war, you can tell all kinds of good stories!
We gave a party, when I was newly in charge of the brewery. I thought we had to let people know that the brewery was still here. I would go out selling the beer, and the restaurants would say, "Oh no, that breweryís bankrupt, theyíre closed." No, I would say, Iím the owner. "No, no, that breweryís gone, they closed years ago."
People didnít know we were still going. They thought I was some kind of weirdo, a psychopath or something, pretending I owned a brewery.
I realized that while our main goal was to make good beer, secondarily we had to let people know that weíre even here. I thought, why donít we just give a party? Breweries are fun, people like the idea of a brewery, weíll just invite everybody. So we invited the mayor, and we invited local artists, you know how you do. In the Ď60s, San Francisco was a much smaller town, and you could invite all these people without any problem. We invited them, and we werenít sure if any of them would come.
Anyway, the night came for the party, and that afternoon I realized all the beer was sour. Every drop of beer in the brewery. We only brewed once a month, and there was only one tank that hadnít been [packaged] yet. We had kegs, and this one tank. The kegs were all sour, and the tank was sour, and we had all these people coming to the party. It was a terrible moment.
I went to an accountówe only had about a dozenóbut I knew of one where they kept a couple of kegs cold, in reserve. A lot of our accounts didnít, they just kept them warm, and they would turn sour in no time, the way beers did until modern technology. We drove down to this account and told them, you know, thereís something wonderful about this brew, and if you donít mind, weíd like to have a couple of these kegs for testing purposes. We took two of the kegs back and it was about half sour, but not all the way sour. It was horrible. And thatís one of the reasons I canít drink those purposely wild-flavored beers, because we really did make beer like that by accident. I had to smile and pretend I was proud of it, but I was really very ashamed.
MA: Thatís a pretty low moment.
FM: There were a lot of other low moments.
MA: At what point did you realize you had turned the corner?
FM: We started to break even in 1975, ten years after I started. But all those years we were only losing a very small amount of money. We only had five people, including myself, until 1972 or so. When we bottled we put a sign on the door that said "Closed for Bottling," because my office manager and myself made five, and it took five of us to run the bottling line. It was a very small company. The nice thing about a small company losing money is that it only loses a small amount of money, or at least in our case. I wrote a check every Friday to meet the payroll, but it was a very small check. When we got into the black, that was a wonderful moment. It was at 7,500 bbls. total production.
MA: When did the brewery move to its present location?
FM: 1979, August 13, was our first brew. It was a Chase & Sanborn building, beautiful building, but no drains. It took two years to gut it and rebuild. The old one was small and weird and cranky, but in its heart of hearts it was beautiful.
We had two brewing licenses at one point. We thought we could stop brewing at the old place and just bottle it dry, and pick up at the new brewery. It didnít work. We didnít have beer for two months.
MA: Let me back up a bit. You said you started making Porter in 1972. Why did you?
FM: I wanted to make more than one beer, partly out of pride and enthusiasm for the idea of brewing, and partly because I had knowledge about brewing and equipment that I liked, and I was like an artist with his materials all together. I could paint more than one kind of painting here. I wanted to do it. I could see that the American brewing industry, and I soon realized the world brewing industry, was dying for validity and variety. I wanted to make various things, and a Porter, a really rich, dark beer was the obvious first choice, because it was radically different from our regular beer. We started making porter, then we started making ale experimentally. But we didnít have the capacity, so we couldnít brew ale all the time.
Thatís where the Christmas Ale came from. Every year at Christmastime, when business was a little slower and we had a little more capacity, we would brew ale, experimentally. Every time we did it we learned, so each time we brewed the Christmas Ale it was different. Thatís where the idea came from that every year the Christmas Ale is different. It wasnít an intentional thing originally, it was just a fact that we were getting better and had new ideas. I purposely made it non-commercial, just a plain gold crown, plain cases. It was supposed to be obviously not a commercialization of Christmas. We change the tree on the label every time for fun, to reinforce that it is a different beer every year. The first ale we brewed was not all malt, the second one was, then we started dry-hopping, and all kinds of stuff like that.
I got married in 1987, and we brewed a bride-ale, that was our first spiced ale. I ultimately didnít have the guts to take the hops out. We were not the first to use spices, Bert Grant has that honor. That became that yearís Christmas ale, and itís been a spiced ale since then.
MA: When you started dry-hopping, were you mostly using American hops?
FM: We actually experimented with English and American and Continental hops. I canít remember exactly, but we dry-hopped with a lot of different hops. At that point, nobody was dry-hopping. In England, a few of the traditional brewers were putting some hops into the cask before it left the brewery, but it was almost a token. None of the ales really seemed to have a hop aroma to speak of, maybe the most subtle. The most intense dry-hopping had faded away not too long before that. Ballantineís used a kind of shortcut dry-hopping where they would add [hops] oil. They had a patented process for a distillation of hop oil. We started dry-hopping pretty early with our ales.
MA: When did Liberty start?
FM: 1975, but the first one was not all-malt, and it was not really very good. It was a real curiosity. It had a bicentennial label because the Bicentennial was coming up in 1976. It was like the Y2K problem. To me, the Y2K problem is that everyone thinks itís the millennium, and itís not the millennium at all. The millenniumís 2001. The same thing was true of the Bicentennial. There was a hype coming that I really kind of dreaded. I thought maybe we should do something for the Bicentennial, a special product. We couldnít make very much, but the purpose was to have the satisfaction of doing it, not that it would be a commercial product. Anyway, the Bicentennial of the Revolution was happening right then. Then I thought some more about it, you know "the eighteenth of April in Ď75, hardly a man is now alive," and bingo! Letís do a celebration of Paul Revereís ride. We brewed the first Liberty Ale on the 18th of April in 1975, and thatís how it got its name. Mind you, we did not put Paul Revere on the label, which would not be my way. But it wasnít very good.
Then I went to England that summer and visited a lot of traditional ale breweries. I learned a little, but I was not really impressed with what I saw, in the sense that they were not really making ales that were traditional in any real sense. I suddenly realized that there was an opportunity here that was broader than just the United States. Somebody could make a really traditional ale, all-malt, dry-hopped, naturally carbonatedóbunged, if you will. When we brewed Old Foghorn that fall, after we got back from England, I think it was the only all-malt, dry-hopped, naturally carbonated ale in the world. I donít know, but nobodyís ever corrected me on that.
English beer had gone through the same thing American beer has gone through. It became very standardized, very bland except for a bitter quality, but very little flavor, or aroma, or body or any real character. Of course, it was brewed with sugar so really it was light beer. In effect they made light beer before we did. There was a loss of richness and tradition in ale brewing, even in Britain, which we all think of as the home of real ale. But the real ale wasnít very real. Not to be too critical of our dear cousins across the pond, but really it was true. I saw an opportunity even greater than I thought, in terms of a traditional brew.
MA: Was Liberty Ale ever meant to be an India Pale Ale, or did it just come out in that direction?
FM: You know, I didnít have that in mind. I did have in mind that there would be other ales right away. Because we were so small and didnít have grand ambitions of size, I thought it would be smart to make an ale that was quite extreme in its character right from the beginning. I was at a tasting last night, and I said that [Liberty Ale] is a product that time has caught up with. Today it doesnít seem all that weird. Itís still pretty hoppy, but there are a bunch of other ales that are that hoppy and that malty and that bitter. But believe me, it wasnít the case 25 years ago. We purposely made it quite extreme, but I did not think of an India Pale Ale when I made it. That certainly would be a pretty close description in terms of hoppiness and all malt. I canít recall when they started brewing with sugar in England, I think it was 1848. Prior to that, it would have been all malt.
MA: How did the spruce beer come about?
FM: Nobody knows what spruce beer should be, of course. Itís like so many things in brewing. Thereís no rulebook; thereís no place to go to find "whatís an ale?" It would seem that there were beers in northern Europe flavored with spruce or pine boughs, or needles or sap or resin or whatever. Thereís no doubt about that. Thereís a brewery in Finland where they put pine boughs in the lauter tun to help get a runoff, which is part of this tradition of flavoring beers. Everybody tried everything.
We put spruce essence in a wheat beer brew, just as a novelty and for Charlie Papazianís convention. We sold it only in Colorado around the convention, and a little in California. I donít think it was very good. But it was an example of what was coming; using flavors, having fun with tapping into brewing traditions. I think that the spruce beer that was part of the mandatory rations for the American troops in the Revolutionary War, which is what everyone always likes to quote, that was really what you and I would call root beer. It would be a very, very low alcohol fermented water and sap, like maple syrup. This idea of tapping the sugar out of the tree and fermenting it with flavors became root beer, which was originally alcoholic. Itís all relative of course. The definition of a non-alcoholic beverage is less than half a percent alcohol [by volume], but thatís still alcoholic.
You can do just about anything you want, and somebody probably did the same thing 500 years ago, and then somebody else did something else. It was all part of that explosion of experimentation and curiosity, and fun. I think a lot of little breweries have had a lot of fun, and a lot of little wineries have had fun. Fun leads to real products sometimes, and sometimes itís just fun. Itís like a restaurant. A little restaurant could put something really strange and curious on the menu and see what happens. A month later no one will remember it except the chef, but maybe he learned something. Or maybe they made a profit, maybe a lot of people said, "Well, letís try that!" Maybe they didnít like it very much, but itís all gone so it doesnít cause a problem. Everybody learned, so move on.
MA: But a big restaurant doesnít have that option.
FM: No, probably not. Maybe they have too much to lose, or maybe the ownerís in Florida, or maybe they donít have a guy who knows how to run a computer and print a new menu every day. There are a lot of reasons big restaurants donít do what little restaurants do.
MA: You keep really close control of your beer at the retail level.
FM: Well, we try.
MA: When did you first realize how important that was?
FM: Originally, when we started bottling, the beer was not likely to last very long, because it still had bacteria that would grow.
MA: Had Anchor been bottling before?
FM: No, we started bottling in May of 1971. We bottled and bottled, and did tests and tests, and it kept spoiling on us. We kept thinking weíd get it eventually, but we never sold any. Finally, I said weíve just got to start selling it. Iím tired of this. Letís keep it cold, it will keep longer. So we sold only to retailers (we did our own distributing in those days) who promised to keep the beer cold. And that way, we thought it would keep for a few weeks before it went sour.
Meanwhile, we were improving the brewing techniques, and eventually the beer would not spoil. But we tried to keep it refrigerated, because we had learned by then that this was a wonderful advantage. People would often say, well, draft beerís better than bottled beer. But most brewers would say, thatís not true, itís the same beer, but draft beerís been kept cold! So letís say draft beer is often better than bottled beer because itís fresher, because itís been cool. I began to realize that was a real advantage in the marketplace, and ever since then we have required our wholesalers to keep our beer cold. We stopped requiring it of the retailers. Itís just absurd, you canít require the retailers to keep the beer cold. You canít enforce it, and if you have a rule that you canít enforce, thereís no rule. We can enforce it at wholesale, and we have. Worldwide, if thereís a bottle of our beer at wholesale, itís cold, right now.
MA: Worldwide? Where is that right now?
FM: Well, I say that to emphasize it. We sell in Sweden, and England, and Japan, places like that. And all that beer is shipped in refrigerated containers. People think itís insanity, because we have to pay a heavy duty on the other end.
MA: It certainly doesnít come across the other way in refrigerated containers.
FM: No, it doesnít come this way like that. It keeps our beer fresher over long distances, and it also maintains the policy worldwide that we can defend. We can tell the guy in Florida, well, they keep it cold in Finland! The opposite would make a very bad impression.
MA: When you bought Anchor, there were no microbreweries, no craft breweries, no "boutique" breweries, there were no brewpubs.
FM: There were a lot of small breweries left, though, old family breweries, but they were all essentially making the same kind of beer.
MA: What did you call yourself? Just a brewery?
FM: Yes, we just called ourselves a small brewery, a traditional brewery. Then the Apple II computer came along, and the phrase "microcomputer" came into being. I had an early Apple. I actually got to know Steve Jobs through a coincidental relationship and became somewhat friendly with him. Iíd already gotten my Apple II, but I actually got my copy of VisiCalc from Steve. Are you enough of a computer buff to know what VisiCalc was?
MA: The first killer app!
FM: Thatís for sure, thatís what sold all the Apple computers. I loved my Apple II, and not for business at first, just as a hobby. Like a lot of people, I went out to the garage and just stayed up all night playing with it.
When the expression "boutique brewery" came in I was furious, I hated it. By then there was at least one other small brewery. I think by design, but certainly by choice, we encouraged the idea of "microbrewery." It meant small, but in those days, because of the Apple connection, it also meant kind of feisty. It meant the little guy taking on the big nasty guy. There was a rebellious kind of quality to a microcomputer, kind of like the hackers today. A microcomputer was halfway to hacking. In fact, in those days, hacking was not necessarily destroying things. It meant playing around. Most everybody who had an Apple II was a hacker. Later "hacker" became a pejorative term for people who were causing malicious damage in other peopleís computers.
So I liked the expression "microbrewer," because it described what we were doing in terms of attitude as well as size. Thatís where it came from. All the little microbreweries were in the Bay Area where the microcomputers came from.
MA: What was the first new American brewery you were aware of?
FM: New Albion, upÖ they were up on the edge of Sonoma, between Sonoma and Shellville. On the north end of the bay.
MA: John [Hansell] actually has two unopened bottles of New Albion beer in his collection. He doesnít figure on opening them.
FM: Well, even then you shouldnít have opened them! Jack McAuliffe was a real character, and he created that brewery out of thin air. I was really impressed with his bootstrap attitude about the whole thing.
MA: So you knew about it as soon as it opened?
FM: Oh, I knew about it long before it opened.
MA: How much did you put into everybody elseís microbrewery? Did they come to you for advice?
FM: I donít know that Jack came to us much, he may have come a little. But most of the others did come, for a long time, and we were very open to them. Iíve often said we were trying to sell anybody and everybody on the idea of making beer well, by hand, on a small scale. We pretty much told everybody what we did, and why. The one thing we emphasized was that you had to do it well. I had tried doing it off-handedly. When I took it over it had been done not well, and it just doesnít work.
One of the nice things about the microbrewery movement was that just about everybody realized that you just have to do this well. You canít make beer casually; it wonít sell, it wonít keep. Here were these new little breweries springing up with simple, handmade beer, but with superb modern technology.
MA: They came in at the right time.
FM: They came in at a magical time, when stainless steel and sanitary fittings, really dairy equipment, was moving into the wine world as well. Itís no accident that many of the early breweries used dairy equipment.
MA: Was it ever about making a business work, or was it just about making good beer, or both?
FM: Absolutely both. When I started out in the brewery, it was utterly and immediately obvious to me that I had gone from liberal arts to business overnight. You canít be in business without worrying about losing money, and we were losing money. Every Friday I had to write a check. I was mortified. Like many entrepreneurs, I spent about ten years in a state of semi-insanity, in that I refused to believe that it wouldnít work. But I was very aware that it wasnít working, that it wasnít profitable. I was horrified at it. We were a miniature version of Amazon.com, right? They keep announcing losses and how excited they are about the future. Theyíre losing a lot of money. I own stock in Amazon. I use them all the time; Iím a believer.
MA: What is current annual production?
FM: We sell about 100,000 barrels. It has to be modest, itís just the nature of the beast. Nor do we have ambitions to get bigger. My ambition is to stay this size. We want happy customers, not major growth.
MA: Where do you see Anchor going, where do you see the industry going?
FM: I donít know where the industry is going, of course, although I have some idea where I think Anchor ought to go. Iím not presumptuous enough to think I know for sure. I would say that itís hard to justify small breweries unless they do something really interesting and really different. Itís hard to justify small wineries, itís hard to justify anything small. Thereís no doubt in my mind that we probably have more little breweries today than we need. I hate to say that, but there was a wild enthusiasm. Whether any of them need to close or will close is another question. It may just be that weíre faced with a kind of delayed growth in the need for little brewery beers. But we have more suppliers than we have demanders. Iím hoping, weíre all hoping, that the demand will grow and the supply will balance.
There was a wild enthusiasm for the idea of small breweries for just a few years. Everybody at Anchor was horrified to see the demand. We give a course every year called "All About Beer" that lasts for two days. Itís designed for people from the media, or from restaurants or anywhere in the food world. Even some big brewers have sent their people. A few years ago we began to notice that the people attending the course werenít brewers or accountants or food journalists, but they were entrepreneurs and worse. We had vulture capitalists; we had people who didnít give a damn about beer, but couldnít wait to put millions of dollars into some new capacity somewhere. We were very, very nervous. It was very brief, but sure enough, now itís here and itís a problem.
Iím not one who predicts that the breweries wonít survive. Demand needs to grow, though. As to the industryÖ goodness, I donít know. I guess the real answer is that the world would be a better place if almost everybody drank a little wine or beer every day. People would be happier and healthier, almost everybody, and we all hope for that. There are less and less people drinking a lot, and we hope that there will be more and more people drinking a little. If there are, weíll all be fine.
FRITZ MAYTAG INTERVIEW: WHISKEY
Malt Advocate: When did you first decide to distill?
Fritz Maytag: I wanted to distill in the early 1970s. But I didnít do anything about it. I like to say that every now and then I would have an Old Overholt on the rocks, and I didnít like it. Although I wasnít really a rye enthusiast, I was a rye believer. I believed in the idea that somehow rye whiskey could be wonderful. Either I would get older and wiser and begin to appreciate it, or maybe I wasnít tasting the right one or something.
When I started making rye whiskey, 20 years later, I was worried that I wouldnít like it. We had no idea what it would taste like, of course, and I was quite worried that it wouldnít be wonderful. But the truth is, from the very beginning we all thought that it was wonderful, that ours was wonderful. It had a kind of mysterious, almost sweet honey grain quality and a peppermint, peppery quality that was kind of magical. Even some of our consultants that we were working with were surprised. I donít know why it is, exactly, whether itís the all-malt rye, the little tiny distilling that weíre doing or what, but I have always liked what weíre doing a lot.
MA: Did the first run go right in, turn out well?
MA: Okay, never mind!
FM: Thatís enough to say about it! Phil [Rogers] here was in on a lot of the early tries! We made a lot of big mistakes. We focused in on it quite quickly. We made many a run where we kept every quart of distillate separate, so that we would have a linear running library of a run, to figure out where to cut, where to make a blend, all that sort of thing. That was very interesting. We were small enough that we could do that, our whole operation was small enough.
I could go on and on; we made a lot of mistakes. We tried double, single, triple, various kinds of distilling, and finally settled on the old-fashioned, traditional double pot, I guess youíd say alembic still. The way it was done before modern technology came in, the way itís done in Cognac and Scotland. I now believe that that is the proper way to make whiskey. Thatís the traditional way. Part of what weíre trying to do here is not to make whiskey of a certain kind, but rather make whiskey of a certain historical validity. Weíre trying to make an 18th century whiskey, whiskey the way it was made 200 years ago. Really for the sake of doing it that way. You could make a lot of whiskies, and they might all be wonderful, but this is one that is wonderful and interesting, valid. Which appeals to me.
MA: When you said double-distilled, I assume youíre running it through the same still twice, you donít have two stills.
FM: Well, we donít say exactly what weíre doing, but many distilleries do have two stills. Itís very common to have the first one be larger than the second one, because you get more out the first time. Weíre distilling it twice. I donít want to overdo the secrecy part, but it just appeals to me to not really say. Partly [that is] because weíre changing what we do, you know. I donít want anyone to say, well, I heard him say they did such and such, because what weíre doing tomorrow might be different. Weíre still learning. Every batch we call an essay. The French use that word to mean, "to try." In English, an essay is an attempt to understand and explain something. Weíre attempting to understand and to show what a traditional whiskey might be. We feel perfectly comfortable changing anything we feel like in the direction of validity or historical interest.
MA: Was it done with 100 per cent malted rye in the interests of authenticity?
FM: Yes, of authenticity, but Iím the first to admit that we donít have real written evidence to the effect that all of the whiskey would have been made always with all malted rye. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary in at least one place in George Washingtonís farming diary, his economic diary or whatever. There is some evidence that he was buying, in addition to rye, I think corn and barley, maybe. Whether it was for the distillery, whether it was common, whether it was the only time, whether it was normal, thereís no evidence. Thereís just no written evidence back then.
But single malt scotch is all barley, by law. Why? I think because thatís authentic, and they grow barley in Scotland, of course. Never underestimate the trade barrier when youíre looking at business. Theyíre into barley in Scotland, they grow it there. But we grew rye, here on the East Coast, and it was a very successful grain.
Another reason why Scotch is all barley malt is that beers were all barley maltóuntil recentlyóand whisky is distilled beer.
Why were the beers all barley malt? Not for some legal authenticity reasons or possibly even not for trade barrier reasons, probably because you had to use all malt. The barley wasnít very good and the malt wasnít very good. Technology is a very recent thing. Today we can grow, with modern agriculture, beautiful, wonderful, plump hybrid barleys that have every wonderful feature and high starch levels and high enzyme potential. Then we malt it in wonderfully modern and efficient, careful ways that create great enzyme strength. Lo and behold, we can now make a beer, which means we can make a whiskey, with a brew thatís maybe only half malted barley. The other half could be any starch. Because the malt has extra enzymes, but thatís very recent. Once upon a time, beer was all malt because it had to be; otherwise it wouldnít convert. So I think whiskey was made from all malt beer, because thatís the way it was.
Even if weíre wrong, weíre right, if you follow me. In other words, it makes so much sense that I think itís a nice thing to do. Certainly some whiskey would have been all malt, maybe the best!
MA: Now that youíve been essentially brewing a pre-whiskey beer with rye, is there any chance you might brew an all-rye malt beer?
FM: I donít rule out anything, but it doesnít particularly interest me. One of the amusing things that happened during this rye whiskey project was that we were keeping it secret, and we succeeded. But for some strange reason, some of our arch-competitors up in the Northwest, who buy from the same maltster that we often buy from, began to brew rye beers around this time. Weíve long suspected that they were led down the garden path by certain information that they shouldnít have gotten. It amused us to see the rye beers come and go right around that time.
MA: You released Old Potrero at around two years age?
FM: One year, barely one year. It went into the barrel December 9, 1993, and we released it in February of 1995, so it was barely a year in the barrel. Mind you, it was very good, but also we were in a big hurry. We wanted to get out. But it was good; we were astonished with how good it was. And I think it was authentic. Itís just extremely unlikely that the first rye whiskies were aged, thereís very little evidence of it. The first evidence comes in for aging whiskey when they talk of dark whiskey, or colored whiskey. There seems to be an indication that color was a sign of age, and age was a kind of a novelty in the 19th century. Pretty much what you and I might call white lightning was probably what a lot of these whiskies really were.
MA: I toured Michterís [distillery in Pennsylvania] about two years before it closed for the last time. They were selling what they called "quarter whiskey," which had been aged for a quarter of a year, three months. It was damn near raw spirit.
FM: Is that right? It must have been rough. I have been there, but only after it closed. Itís a sad thing to visit, a kind of pilgrimage. Iíve been there on cold, rainy days. I studied it for re-opening, but I donít think itís a good location these days, too much housing around there.
MA: When you first came out with Old Potrero you only sold to selected restaurants. Was that because of the limited amounts?
FM: We only had 1,400 bottles. Iíve seen a lot of little wineries that opened up and got a rave review, and suddenly they were out of wine for a whole year. It made everybody upset, the owner, the winemaker, the restaurant that put it on the list heroically, maybe foresightedly, the distributor who was going to handle it; everybodyís upset and itís suddenly gone and itís over. Itís just a disaster. So I decided that since we were working on what I call the Knievel Curveódo you remember Evel Knievel? You get started real slow and build up speed and eventually you take off. We were very early on the Knievel Curve. We didnít have much whiskey, but we could start slowly, so we said restaurants only. We also could control it, because a good friend of ours, our own beer distributor, got a spirits license especially for us. He agreed to represent us in the Bay Area as a favor and as an educational thing for himself. So we had complete control. It was like selling beer on draft only. You really couldnít get a bottle of it. Of course, we knew a few bottles would go out the back door. They would be real collectorís items today.
It worked, I think. We sold it by the drink, essentially, and it went slow, but it went well. It was very successful. It was such a secret that the stores didnít really get upset because they hadnít heard of it. It really was a kind of inside thing forthe food and restaurant world for a little while.
MA: When did the bottles come out for sale?
FM: A year or two later, I guess. Weíre still early on the Knievel Curve. Itís still very, very, very small. People ask me how much weíre making. I tell them that weíre not making it all the time, but when we are making it, we make a barrel about every two or three weeks. A barrel is about 250 bottles, so weíre making about a hundred bottles a week, when weíre really going.
Itís a small thing, a very small thing. It reminds me of the Anchor Brewing Company. When people ask me "Howís it going?" I love to say the same thing every time. ĎItís going great. Weíre not selling very much, but we have the world by the tail. The world doesnít know it yet, but we do.í Itís just like the brewing business, in the early Ď70s, when we were making a wonderful beer, and making it well, and it really was delicious. Almost nobody wanted that kind of beer, but by golly, we just knew a whole lot of people would want it as soon as they knew about it.
MA: The first time I got hold of a beer that wasnít mainstream, there was an instant recognition.
FM: Thatís how we feel about the whiskey. People who work at the brewery, who werenít there during the Ď60s and early Ď70s, but who were there in the Ď90s, have a similar feeling of pride and excitement about knowing that they were there [for the whiskey]. "I was there when it was nothing!" That kind of thing. We knew it was real, and we were proud, but it was a secret. I think itís a nice morale thing for our employees.
MA: Do you see a wave of microdistillers coming on behind you?
FM: There are some things happening. Weíve heard of several. The first thing that happened was when I went to Bluegrass Cooperage in 1992, and I told them my idea about having a pot-distilled whiskey, how I needed to know more about barrels. I needed a source who would make me barrels by hand, and make them well. I realized when I did it that probably word would get out in the industry. We were a little paranoiac, I guess, but I wasnít going to worry about it. I had to start talking about it because I needed help, I needed the barrelmaker.
I had not realized that Bluegrass [Cooperage] was owned by Brown-Forman. Indeed, it was not long after that when Brown-Forman started ordering copper pot stills in Scotland and opened a little pot [distillery; Labrot & Graham], which was very clever of them. It may have been a total coincidence. A good idea usually happens in a lot of places all around at the same time. But we were the first pot-distilled whiskey in modern, recent times in the United States; certainly the first pot-distilled rye in a long, long time. Real rye.
There are some others. A lot of microbrewers, when they see me, say "Howís the whiskey going?" I always say, "Oh, itís real slowÖ" which is true! Weíre not eager [for more new distillers]; weíd like to have some time in the sun by ourselves.
MA: Itís a tougher curve to get onto, with the aging and greater investment.
FM: It is, yes. Thereís time, and investment, and technology. One of the things that did happen in the microbrewing industry was that the early brewers, the real pioneers, were all pretty much bootstrappers. There were some real hands-on, make-it-ourselves, do-it-our-way, "we didnít go to brewing school, we weld" types, into stainless steel and hands-on engineering. Later, there was no end of people who just picked up the phone and ordered a turn-key brewery. To that extent, weíre still at the early phase. I donít know whether others will pick up on it. I always thought they would, just because it seemed like such a good idea to me. Itís so much fun.
We were talking about fun earlier. Weíre doing other products we havenít released. We have the gin and the whiskey, but weíre working on some other things that we enjoy doing, and itís fun! You feel kind of naughty, standing there by the still and licking your fingers at ten oíclock in the morning. Itís an open field, thereís room for creativity.
MA: Even the stuff thatís out there now, people havenít been that creative for quite a while.
FM: No! The world of distilling has been kind of sleepy, and reminds me a little bit of the brewing industry, especially the American distilling world and some of the Europeans. Itís charming, but somewhat hidebound. We see an opportunity, just like American winemakers 20 years ago. Hey, letís do something different! Hey, letís try this, letís try that! Itís great fun.
MA: Was the Old Potrero aged in charred or uncharred barrels?
FM: We are making two whiskies. Our primary product, and the product that we want people to enjoy primarily, that is really the name of the game for us, is what I call an eighteenth century rye whiskey. It is all-rye malt, and aged in uncharred oak barrels. Charred barrels, as far as we can tell, really did not come into use until the early nineteenth century. Again, there is a dearth of written records. There are hints, there are clues, little references to charred barrels, but they donít seem to have predominated. I would be very surprised if there was a lot of whiskey made entirely in new charred oak barrels. But since 1933, itís been mandatory to make rye whiskey and bourbon whiskey in new, charred oak barrels. Thatís not what we want to do, we want to make it the way the eighteenth century boys did. And we are.
But, we are also making some, a little, of pretty much the same product aged in new, charred oak barrels. Weíre going to taste some tonight [at WhiskyFest]. Weíre doing other things also. Weíre using ex-bourbon barrels, the way the Scots would do, and other things, but our primary product is in new uncharred oak.
MA: Youíre strictly working with rye for whiskey at this point?
FM: Well, we donít say, but weíre not selling anything other than rye. Iím not particularly interested in anything other than rye at this point. Ryeís American, unique, sort of like Zinfandel. You know, they donít say in France, "We make better Zinfandel than in California." They donít make Zinfandel. I like that. They donít make rye whiskey in Scotland, and I like that.
MA: You had mentioned to me once that you were kind of tickled that rye was older than bourbon.
FM: Well, yes, I think itís great fun, kind of like an end run, if you will. Mind you, it doesnít mean itís better than bourbon. Thatís open to argument. The reason bourbon may predominate now is that most people much prefer it. But we donít have to have most people, we can have just a few people. I like that it has this early, historical aspect, and that itís out of favor. I like that, too. I donít want to join the crowd. The time to buy IBM is when itís at 20, anybody can buy it when itís at 135!
MA: Are there other whiskies that you like?
FM: Yes. Of course, Iím sure itís like many brewers; nowadays itís hard for me to drink other whiskies with the same kind of pleasure. Because I do like our own a whole lot. If I were going to drink a single malt, I think I would have a Lagavulin, 20 years old or so, because although I now have come to prefer a whisky without peat, if youíre going to have a single malt, I think you should have some peat. Why not, go for it. Laphroaig is too much for me, and Lagavulin isÖ maybe too much too, but itís very much in my range. I like The Macallan, partly because when I visited there they were very courteous to me. Iím aware of their interest in quality, and their tradition of using sherry barrels, which shows creativity and a willingness to break away from the quite modern source of used bourbon barrels. Two million used bourbon barrels go out on the market every year, and the Scots are famous for seeing a bargain, butÖ I admire The Macallan, and I also like a lighter whisky as a counterpoint. Weíre aware of Glenmorangieís experimenting, too. Theyíve recently been very creative with cooperage. I know itís well-run and theyíve had some interesting people there. Those are the single malts that come immediately to my mind.
Iíve always been a Makerís Mark guy. I went to a cooperage many, many years ago in Arkansas, that I think used to be the sole source of their barrels. This was back when it was still family owned. Thatís when I first heard about Makerís Mark. I asked the cooper, what bourbon would you drink? He said, ĎWell, Makerís Mark buys all their barrels from us, and they seem to have a real interest in the quality of the barrels. Itís still a family distillery.í Bingo! I went home and tried some Makerís Mark. You know how it is. You follow things with your heart sometimes as much as with your head, so Iím kind of a Makerís Mark fan. If I were going to have a bourbon, thatís what I would have.
MA: You still donít care for other rye whiskies?
FM: [Long pause.] Thatís right.
Although I would say this. After we started making rye, and after I got our own under my belt, and after we started aging some in new, charred oak barrels, I went backóof course, we do tastings from time to time at the distilleryówe went back and we tasted some of the other ryes. I had to admit then, tasting blind, which is such a wonderful education, I had to admit that there was way more there than I had ever seen. You know how it is, if youíve never taken a course in art, you donít know how to see Van Gogh. You see him, but you donít really see him until youíve gotten deeper in.
Now I see more in these ryes than I ever saw before, not only that, I liked a lot of what I saw. I never disliked it, I just didnít love it. Like other things, maybe itís more subtle. Bourbon is round, and sweet, and rich, and oaky, and deep, and caramel and vanilla and red. Rye is drier, and leaner, maybe more subtle, I think. I think it was a lack of richness in some of the ryes I drank that I didnít appreciate. Itís a leaner whiskey, leaner is a good word. But I now see richness, now that Iíve learned about whiskey. I now taste richness in some of our rye brethren that I like, and that I did not taste before.
Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. |
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: May 24, 2005