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My Lunch With Keith Greggor, New Anchor Owner

I got a call yesterday morning from John Dannerbeck, CEO of Anchor Brewery, who let me know the details about the sale of Anchor and also conferenced in Keith Greggor, the CEO of the Griffin Group, the entity that’s entered into an agreement to buy the brewery. Since he’s essentially a neighbor, we met up for lunch at a bar in downtown Novato to talk.

We met about Noon, and shared a BrewDog Dogma, their 7.8% beer brewed with Scottish heather honey, poppy, kola nut and guarana. Greggor himself was laid back, dressed casually and had kept his British accent nearly intact, despite living in the states for over 25 years, having become a U.S. citizen nearly ten years ago. Greggor, I learned, was born in Bournemouth, on the southern coast of England. When he was nine, he moved to Singapore and began dreaming of one day living in San Francisco. That would take another thirty years to come true, as he returned to the UK for college and then joined IDV (International Distillers & Vintners) in London in 1983. IDV eventually became part of Diageo, owners of Guinness, among much else.

In 1985, Greggor moved to New Jersey, where he took a job with one of IDV’s US companies, the Paddington Corporation. There he met Tony Foglio, originally from Brooklyn, and the pair worked together at Paddington until 1998, when they left as Diageo became less fun and assumed more of a corporate culture. They took over management of Skyy Vodka and increased the company tenfold, before completing a long process whereby the Campari Group acquired an ever larger stake in Skyy, eventually taking over control of the company in 2007. Greggor formed the Griffin Group the same year, and Foglio joined him last year.

In October of 2008, the Griffin Group bought Preiss Imports, an importer of mostly spirits in southern California. They do carry two beer brands, and that’s how I knew Henry Preiss, who called on me when I was with BevMo about their Australian beer, Cooper’s. The other brand they recently undertook is BrewDog. The first week after acquiring Preiss, Greggor met James Watt from BrewDog and the pair hit it off, with Watt coming to Greggor for business advice. When it came time for BrewDog to expand in June of last year, the Griffin Group became a minority investor in the Scottish brewery.

According to Greggor, about nine months ago they began talking to Fritz Maytag about an idea they had for a “Center of Excellence” in San Francisco which he describes as an “epicenter of development, education, entertainment and innovation, all designed to further contribute to the culture and heritage of craft beer and artisan spirits.” Given the disproportionate attention paid to wine in northern California, I’d certainly love to see something focused on beer and spirits in the region, too. So they kept talking to Fritz off and on, he checked them out, and they kept talking. Eventually, they reached an agreement whereby Maytag would sell the brewery and distilling operations to them, and the deal is expected to close at the end of June.

The current employees will all remain and nothing much should change around the brewery at all. John Dannerbeck, current president, will continue in that role, reporting to Greggor after the close. Foglio will then become chairman, and Maytag will remain involved as chairman emeritus. The only changes will likely be in marketing. Additional sales people will be hired and will represent the Anchor, BrewDog and Cooper’s brands. Greggor sees lots of opportunities to grow the brand, and that’s really he and Foglio’s specialty.

While no new brands are planned, they are open to that possibility but are adamant about not messing with the current lineup. If anything came through loud and clear, it’s that they’re nearly as passionate as Fritz about protecting the Anchor brand. And that makes sense, frankly, as their careers have been devoted to building up brand names. Greggor told me he plans on doing a lot of listening, finding out how things work and why. There’s a lot to learn, he said, and I think fans can rest assured that the brand will be in good hands that have no intention of messing about with it.

Tony Foglio, Fritz Maytag and Keith Greggor in the Anchor Brewhouse.

The only foreseeable changes are things like their recent announcement that Humming Ale, previously available only on draft, will be bottled this summer. There’s also a possibility that Martin Dickie, BrewDog’s brewmaster, may brew some of his beers at the Anchor Brewhouse, but that probably won’t happen for a while.

I finally got around to finding out about the way in which the news came out on Monday, and it turns out it was as much of a surprise to both Anchor and the Griffin Group as everyone else. Apparently what happened was an embargoed press release was given to a few mainstream media outlets. An embargoed press release is common practice for certain types of events. In effect, news outlets get the news early under strict orders not to release the information until a specific date in the future. In this case, the news of Anchor’s sale should not have been announced until the next day. It’s done for things like presidential speeches, where a copy of the speech itself is given to the press early so they can begin writing it up in advance. The same thing was done here, but the writer assigned to the story accidentally leaked it. Although a 30-year veteran of reporting, he apparently had little knowledge of the beer industry and reached out to both Beer Advocate and DRAFT for a comment on the story, sending them the embargoed press release in the process. They both promptly posted it. Frankly, I would have probably done the same thing with news that big.

Maytag was in the air when it broke, on his way to a micro-distillers’ conference. At first I thought the employees had not yet been told, but I’ve since learned they did find out from him prior to his trip. But once the news leaked early, nobody was sure what to do, and so they decided to not respond until the next day, when they could figure out how to respond, which left everybody wondering and my phone ringing off the hook. And that’s why I got an e-mail from John Dannerbeck first thing Tuesday morning and talked to him on the phone a little later. They had hoped to manage the news a bit better, but everything went haywire when the news came out the way it did. I’m also told that someone at a news outlet somewhere had some heavy explaining and apologizing to do.

My colleague, Brent Ainsworth, a reporter at the Marin IJ — and fellow Novato neighbor — spoke with Greggor right after we had lunch yesterday, and his interview, Novato man, new co-owner of Anchor Brewing, reflects on deal and beer industry, is up on the IJ’s website.

Keith Greggor outside Finnegan’s yesterday in downtown Novato.

UPDATE 4.29: Don Russell talked to Fritz Maytag by phone today, and has a Q&A posted on his Beer Radar that has some more insights into the impetus to sell.

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