Fritz Maytag Sells His Anchor Brewery
Originally published May 5, 2010
THE CRAFT BEER movement may have grown at a phenomenal pace — 9 million barrels of beer were produced last year alone — the industry itself remains surprisingly small. Everyone knows everyone else, giving it a more collegial feel than most businesses. So when big news about craft beer happens, it travels fast.
Last week, one of the biggest stories of the year was leaked and spread like wildfire. Rumors began last Monday just before lunch. By midafternoon, a news release scheduled for release this week was posted on two prominent beer websites, catching everybody by surprise. And by now, you’ve probably heard. Fritz Maytag, the 72-year-old legend who has spent 45 years building the Anchor brand, is selling the iconic brewery to the Griffin Group.
The Godfather of Beer
Fritz Maytag’s importance to craft beer today cannot be overstated. When he bought Anchor Brewery in 1965, it was one of hundreds of similar regional breweries struggling to compete against the big national brands. Maytag spent the next several years learning everything he could about brewing. He visited breweries in England, studied old texts, and investigated steam beer, one of America’s few unique beer styles.
Anchor began bottling its version of steam beer in 1971, striving to emulate a pre-Prohibition brew. It marked the beginning of a prolific and innovative decade. Anchor bottled its first Porter in 1974, when no English brewers were making the style any longer, and released Liberty Ale on April 18, 1975, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. It was also one of the first beers to use Cascade hops, today the most popular hop variety used by craft brewers.
The first Anchor Christmas Ale, a brown ale, came the same year. Shortly thereafter, they began creating a new recipe — and a new hand-drawn tree label — each year. Old Foghorn, the first barley wine-style ale in modern times, debuted the following year.
In 1979, the brewery was moved to its present location on Mariposa Street, and a series of special projects began, including the Sumerian Beer Project to make Ninkasi Beer and a spruce beer based on colonial recipes.
Anchor’s reputation then, as now, became one of absolute integrity. By 1980, anyone interested in opening a microbrewery visited Anchor Brewery first. There was simply no where else to go. Maytag opened his brewery up to the inquisitive, inspiring new generations of brewers — and that is why so many people consider Maytag the godfather of beer.
Changing of the guard
When I interviewed Fritz Maytag several years ago, for an article on how brewers pass the torch, he wasn’t sure what the future held. But last year, he began talking to two entrepreneurs, Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio from the Novato-based Griffin Group, about their idea of building a beer company that would be, says Greggor, “an epicenter of development, education, entertainment and innovation, all designed to further contribute to the culture and heritage of craft beer and artisan spirits.”
The Griffin Group purchased a minority interest in Scotland’s infamous BrewDog last year and also bought Preiss Imports, whose dizzying array of spirits and brews includes two imported beer brands, Cooper’s of Australia and BrewDog. Greggor and Foglio met in the early 1980s, while working for International Distillers and Vintners, the company that later became Diageo, the spirits giant and owners of Guinness. The pair left in 1998 to take over Skyy Vodka, building it into a powerhouse brand before selling it to the Campari Group in 2007.
The Anchor sale is expected to close by the end of June. Current president John Dannerbeck will continue in that role, reporting to Greggor, who will continue to work from his home in Marin. Foglio will become chairman, while Maytag continues his involvement as chairman emeritus. Apart from changing the official name to Anchor Brewers & Distillers, few changes are expected, although there may be a few additions to the lineup. Anchor recently announced that its seasonal Humming Ale, for example, previously available only on draft, will be bottled this summer.
Greggor says almost all the changes will be on the marketing side, where he sees opportunities to grow the brand. He’s planning on adding to the existing sales force, who will then represent Anchor, Cooper’s and BrewDog. Eventually, Martin Dickie, BrewDog’s brewmaster, may brew some beers at Anchor’s brewhouse.
But one thing was clear when I met with Greggor: He’s nearly as passionate as Maytag when discussing the brewery. He seems genuinely excited and humbled at the prospect and responsibility of carrying on the legacy of Anchor Brewery. I’ll certainly drink to that.