Head of Steam

Thirty-one years ago, Fritz Maytag bought an ailing San Francisco brewery and launched the microbrew revolution. What's next for the man who ships Anchor Steam to 48 states and three continents? Here's a hint: It's not beer.

September/October 1996

Reading time min

Head of Steam

Photo: Richard Morgenstein

I like a good beer as much as the next....

Check that. I like a good beer much, much more than the next guy. So I'm happy these days, what with all the good beers around. But I remember, back East in the '70s, we had our Buds and our Millers and, if flush, our Heinekens -- not much else. We suffered a general lager lack, we were ailing for ale. We heard, back then, that things were different out West. We heard about a couple of beers in particular. They seemed to us mystical, near mythical elixirs. We heard the word "Coors" and the more cryptic phrase "Anchor Steam."

So one year, a buddy comes back from a ski trip in Colorado lugging a contraband case of Coors in his boot bag. We chill it down and drink it up. I remember thinking: We've been had! This stuff's lousy. Diluted Michelob!

A couple years later, I'm on business in San Francisco. I'm sitting at  the bar at Vesuvius in North Beach -- nice work if you can get it -- and I notice an odd tap handle emblazoned with an anchor. Forgive and forget. I try a pint.

This is different, immediately different. Anchor Steam, I find, is chewy and aromatic, a little jazzy and a little funky. I've always liked San Francisco, and now I like its beer, which, I decide, suits the city very well.

That was then, this is now. Today, good American beer is ubiquitous. Every hamlet has a brewpub, and "Anchor" is available in 48 states, not to mention several Planets (Hollywood). Almost everyone who has bothered to wonder at the current beer boom -- the 800-label micro phenomenon that has spread across the land -- credits the Anchor Brewing Company with being the grandfather of it all.

 Interestingly, it turns out that even this assessment isn't micro enough. The patriarchal figure at the head of craft-brewing's table has a name, and it is a name you would want an old-fashioned brewmeister to have. Fritz: More formally, he is Frederick Louis Maytag III, and it is under that name that he came from Iowa to Stanford in 1955, graduated four years later, stayed for three years of grad school and then, abruptly, quit to buy a suffering little brewery in the City.

I have an audience with Maytag this morning at his brewery, which rests at the foot of a San Francisco hill named Potrero. It is housed in a stolid white building that throws off a rich, yeasty aroma to the neighborhood.

Up a flight of well-polished wood stairs, I meet Linda Rowe, office manager and one of Maytag's original five employees from the money-leaking days of the late '60s. She says Maytag is on his way, and would I care to wait in the bar.


It's 10 a.m., but what the hey.

As I wait, I drink in my surroundings (and nothing else). It's a fabulous room, a re-creation of a 19th-century tavern. There's a rolltop desk, a barrelhouse piano and old wooden kegs. Above the mahogany bar are all sorts of old bottles; on tap are six Anchor brews. On the walls hang dozens of metal trays: Acme Brew and Brakspears, Coors, Hamms and Huntsman, Kaiser's and Kirin, Pabst and Rainier, Schlitz and Schmidts, Walley Beer and Wieland's beer. In the center of the room sits a glass case containing medals, Anchor Christmas Beer tap handles, several weird bottles and a book published in Edinburgh in 1793 opened to its title page: The Theory and Practice of Malting and Brewing , "By a Practical Brewer."

Enter Maytag, certainly an improbable and some would argue, yes, impractical brewer. He is fit and firm; he's sporting shirtsleeves and just-back-from-vacation vigor. I've heard him described as "imperious," but it's not quite that. He's overtly, if not overly, sure of himself. He's sure, for instance, that he can give me the story of "a Stanford grad who took this strange little brewery and made it work," but doesn't want to entertain "a Fritz Maytag and his brewery and his vineyards and his cheese and his sailing and his trotting horses story."

Fine with me. I'm a beer guy.

(Trotting horses?)

We repair to Maytag's office, which is three panes of glass away.

As clean and comfortable as everything else, it's filled with light and books. I mention how pleasant it is, and how pleasant I found the taproom. "We moved into this building in 1977," Maytag says. "We gutted everything, and tried to re-create this funny little room we had in the old plant. And the glass walls we wanted the brewhouse right here in the office. I wanted to stick the brewing right here in the middle of the office. That's an important statement."

I suggest we start at the beginning, and work our way up to symbolic gestures made through beer.

"Well," Maytag begins, "I came from Iowa. I had a very fortunate upbringing." He sure did. He's one of those Maytags, the Maytags -- the washer-dryer folks. The original Maytag suds man was great-great-grandfather. Maytag's grandfather assembled a herd of Holsteins and started the Maytag dairy enterprise. The appliance business having gone public -- and having secured the basis for the family fortune -- Maytag's father carried on with the dairy, making baskets of dough with some nationally famous cheese. As a high school sophomore, Fritz Maytag went East, to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He calls it "an academy in the ancient sense of the word a very strict, severe, competitive place. The weather was dark, depressing. I was a Westerner, and I learned this when I went East." Maytag laughs a clipped, abrupt, earnest laugh.

He knew what he wanted in a college: "Coeducation, West, Bigger, Excellent. That was Stanford. I applied to no backups. And from the moment I got to Palo Alto, I considered myself a Northern Californian.

"I loved the openness of Stanford," says Maytag, an American literature major. "I was interested in engineering and science and was able to find that I didn't want to pursue them. I thought, maybe, I wanted to be part of the world of books. But then, I decided that wasn't right. I was influenced by a classic Chinese idea: That an educated man can do anything."

He mulled other classic Asian ideas during three years of graduate work in Japanese studies. In this period, he got himself hooked up with some classmates in a business venture in Chile, and it certainly appeared young Maytag was headed for a career as some kind of internationalist. Then, by the purest happenstance, he found his anchor.

 "Yessss, I can remember the first Steam I ever had," Maytag says. "I don't remember the taste of it as much as the experience of it. It was at The Oasis, the off-campus bar, in perhaps 1960. I remember being told it was a funny, local beer. I was told it was special."

By the mid-'60s Maytag was living in San Francisco and drinking his Steam not at the O, but at the saloons and jazz clubs of North Beach. "I had a favorite place, the Old Spaghetti Factory. It opened in '57, and was wholesome, fun and bohemian. Fantastic place. It was run by Fred Kuh, a real North Beach character. I used to come by in the evenings and have a Steam. One night Fred said to me, 'Fritz, have you ever been to the brewery?'

" 'No.'

" 'You ought to see it. It's closing in a day or two, and you ought to see it. You'd like it.'

"This was in August of '65. I went over the next day and bought controlling interest for practically nothing. Anybody who used to drink beer in college, sitting up all night talking about ideas and sipping beer, can understand why I'd do that."


What Maytag bought was a dump of a building, a special recipe and a grand 60-year tradition of brewing under the Anchor name. In the late 19th century, several "steam" beers, as they were called, were brewed throughout San Francisco. Early in the 20th century, Anchor entered the game. It passed through various ownerships to Lawrence Steese in 1959, and was about to gain notoriety as the last specialty brewer in the country to close when Maytag stepped in hoping to make it the first to survive and thrive.

"The brewery had been kept alive more by the enthusiasm for the idea than enthusiasm for the beer," Maytag says. "When it was good, which was not too often, it tasted very much like what we have here today. We wanted to use the original recipe. But they'd been adding corn syrup sometimes, to save money. I went back to all barley malt. I set up a little place in the brewery -- 'the lab' -- and brought down my microscope. I was the kind of guy who had a microscope. And I'd look at the cultures to try to get a . . . well, look at this." He moves to the shelves and extracts a book. "Pasteur has always been my hero." I figure he is about to make some silly leap by finding a metaphor for Pasteurian chemistry in the beer vat, but not -- here it is: Studies on Fermentation , by Louis Pasteur. He goes right to an illustration of malt microbes captioned "Turned Beer."

"See?" he says. "I read all kinds of stuff like this, to learn. And I got help. A man named John Borger, a field rep for a chemical company, gave me a million dollars worth of wonderful, practical, homespun advice -- how to avoid sour, how to keep your oxygen low. It was as if your wife couldn't cook, so Julia Child came and stayed for a week."

Through Anchor Brewing, Maytag was seeking economic gain, surely, but something more, too: affirmation by the masses. He had seen such affirmation accorded to Maytags before him. "I saw the pride with which my father reacted when people would ask him, 'Have you anything to do with that blue cheese?' I saw that, and I saw I had a chance of developing a food product that could do the same."

He pauses, then continues. "Entrepreneurs are stubborn people who want to prove they're right. But actually, I had grave doubts. We didn't make a profit for 10 years. We were doing a hundred kegs a month, and if the Old Spaghetti Factory weren't taking 10 each week, we'd have been in trouble. I always say Fred Kuh was the one who really saved Anchor Steam."

Kuh bought the company time, time to get the system right. By 1971, Maytag was confident enough to start putting the brew in bottles, and rumors began to spread about this weird and wonderful beer; I heard about it all the way back East, even if I heard it unfairly lumped with Coors. "By '73, '74, we were brewing consistently marvelous stuff," says Maytag, "and it was the mid-'70s when the whole food renaissance started happening -- good wines, cheeses, bread. In beer, I don't know whether we caused it or rode the coattails."

He's being disingenuous; Fritz Maytag clearly feels Anchor Steam represented an early volley in the American microbrew revolution. Others feel that way too, even those in the enemy camp. James Koch, founder and chief of the Johnny-come-lately (but Johnny-come-hugely) Boston Beer Company (read: Samuel Adams), says, "To brewers like myself, Maytag proved that there were drinkers out there who would support us. I was out West looking at colleges in the late '60s, and I think I had my first Anchor at a place called the Old Spaghetti . . . Factory, or something. Thirty years ago. It was a great beer then, it's a great beer now."

While Maytag is being falsely modest in declining the title Father of the Beer Boom, he is not being anything but honest when he says, "I never knew it would get this big." As for his own brewery, it has grown from a production level of a hundred kegs a month to 100,000 barrels a year; from a workforce of five to 53.

"Sure, growth is exciting, satisfying, profitable," Maytag says. "Everyone here is excited that we have a hundred different draught accounts in Manhattan, and that we were in Planet Hollywood in Paris before we were in Planet Hollywood in San Francisco. I'll give you a Stanford analogy. Stanford has gotten bigger, but it never tried to get big. It wanted to get good, and then better.

"But I mean this: We do not, emphatically do not, want to get too big."

He is alluding not so subtly to certain former followers now, confreres in the microbrew revolution. When he speaks of them, he starts mildly enough, but eventually he foams over.

He begins: "I feel, today, there's more creativity in the brewing business in the United States than anywhere in the world. And I'll say that there's an immense amount of good beer. For instance, Sam Adams is a good beer."

He continues: "We're sticking to our original goals. I want to make all our beer right here in this building. Hands on. Now, some of the others -- they're twice as big as we are. Red Hook. Sierra Nevada. And then there are the folks. . . ."

He picks up steam: ". . . the . . . the farming-out companies, who contract with different breweries. Pete's Wicked does 600,000 to 800,000 barrels a year, and Sam Adams more than a million. These . . ."

He searches, but can be no kinder than: "These pseudo micros are a response to the demand that we helped create back in the late '70s and early '80s. I hate to be pejorative, but a contract brewer is a marketing company -- 'We'll market it if you brew it.' "

Koch of Sam Adams begs to differ. "We're all in the same minor league," he says. "We and Anchor -- we're a millionth of Budweiser. That's the big guy. Yes, we may be bigger than Anchor, but that doesn't matter. It's in the brewing. Contract brewing versus a vat in the back room just doesn't matter, and Fritz knows that. Who owns the kettle and where the kettle is -- it's a meaningless thing."

Maytag, while conceding that Bud is another game entirely -- Busch brews a quarter million barrels of beer per day -- remains bugged. "This Henry Adams . . . this Sam Adams thing is a way of meeting the demand we created -- we, and the other early microbrewers. In a way, it's spoiled all the fun."Nonsense. In all the minutes of the day when the Boston Beer Company isn't getting his goat, Maytag is having fun with his brewery -- nothing but fun. Now that Anchor Steam is on solid financial ground, with demand exceeding supply, Maytag has great fun in the margins inventing, messing about, being a playful Pasteur.

The result has been a steady stream of new products. Anchor Porter, a great dark brew, debuted in 1974. Maytag tried a third Anchor product, Liberty Ale, the following year, and introduced it permanently to the Anchor line in 1983. Says the eminent beer critic Michael Jackson: "A truly robust ale ... emphatically American." Anchor has been making a wheat beer since the mid-'80s, too. Old Foghorn, which became a regular in 1985, is a heavy-alcohol potable suitable for sipping, slowly, with dessert. Says Jackson: "Without question, one of the world's great barley wines. With its lively balance of malty sweetness, estery fruitiness and slightly citric dryness of hop character, rounded into a soothing warmth, it is the beer world's answer to cognac."

(Estery fruitiness?)

All along the way, the brewery has produced a series of Maytag's ferociously idiosyncratic special issues. In 1991, there was the Spruce Beer effort done for the American Microbrew Association meeting. "Too sprucey," Maytag admits. "It was very, very sprucey. But with a Spruce beer, I guess that's better than having people say they can't taste the spruce." For his 1987 wedding, Maytag brewed Bridale. Beverly Jean Horn, the betrothed, pitched the yeast herself. "The word Bridale is medieval," Maytag says. "I wanted to brew a medieval ale with spices. Hops were not allowed in England until 1520, so I used mostly spices. I used some hops, too, but if I had the guts I would have brewed entirely without them."

Maytag found an even older recipe for beer, and this led to Anchor's 1991 experiment with "Sumerian beer." Unveiled at the American Beer Festival, here were a bunch of folks working from a formula found in tablets dating to 3000 B.C., sucking on tubes as, apparently, the ancients used to do. The Sumerian project was written up in places from Archaeology magazine to the New York Times . But when you picture the ritualistic drinking and throw in the fact that the stuff was named for the beer goddess Ninkasi ("Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat/It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates"), you think: Frat Party.

Maytag insists, "I wouldn't say Anchor is my toy. It is my pleasure." He has fun with beer, in other words, while taking beer very seriously. "It's often seen as a common man's product: It's not champagne. There's a lack of awe, a lack of respect by the ordinary person. That's a little too bad."

Was it this thinking that led Maytag to take on, as his latest hush-hush project, a more respectable potable? "Did you know," Maytag says in a whisper drenched with complicity, "that we're making whiskey?"

It sounds like he's got a still out back, and, in fact, that's the case: Out in the back of the brewery, he's got a still. It has been filled, since December of 1994, with a single-malt rye that is now appearing at select restaurants in San Francisco. Maytag, as he shakes hands, recommends one of these to me. "If you want a good steak and a good glass of whiskey, go to Harris's."

And so I, dutiful reporter, say goodbye to Maytag and his marvelous brewery and make my way to Harris's on Russian Hill, a terrific oiled-wood place that would be the back room at Anchor Steam, if Maytag ever decided to re-create a 19th-century steak house. I am going to see what's next, in this latest chapter of the Anchor Steam story. I take a seat at the bar and ask for an Old Potrero on the rocks. "Where'd you hear about that?" the bartender asks suspiciously. I tell him of the day I've spent with Maytag, and he pours with a good, loose elbow.

The rye brewed, Maytag fancies, as George Washington would have, back in the days when rye was the only authentic whiskey of the United States, is good, very good, if young. It's also strong, and so I switch after one glass to Steam, which is as good as ever. I'm sitting there, looking at that wonderful, colorful label and I think to myself: I never did ask him. I never asked him about "Steam." What the hell is a steam beer?

I've heard all the theories: That an old miner named Pete Steam used to make beer hereabouts. Other accounts say he was Jack Steam, or Frank Steam. I've heard that, in the prerefrigeration days, the pressure in the kegs used to get so high the beer would gush forth steamily when tapped. I've read that the open vat settling would give off an aromatic steam. But I never did ask Maytag which theory he subscribed to.

I take another sip and decide: That's OK. Mystery's nice; it's like the clouds in a good glass of beer. Jack Steam, Pete Steam, steaming kettles, steaming kegs -- cross none of them off. Let them all live on in Anchor Steam, in Fritz Maytag, in a quirky man and a quirky brewery, bubbling and steaming away at the foot of old Potrero Hill.

Robert Sullivan, a senior editor at Life magazine, is author of the forthcoming Flight of the Reindeer: the True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission.

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