In 1969, Fritz Maytag became the sole owner of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco. Over the next 10 years, the brewery would prove to be a beacon of hope for good beer in America, as regional breweries were driven out of business by consolidation and macro swill ruled the supermarket shelves. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when craft beer was being revived in America, Maytag had an open-door policy for new entrepreneurs and gave many of them advice on how to get their own breweries off the ground. Among them was Ken Grossman, the cofounder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. I interviewed Maytag while working on a feature about Sierra Nevada, and he had a lot to say about the industry. Some of the interesting bits that didn't make it into the Sierra story—about why he's no showboater and how he rebuffed brewing poseurs—is below.
What was the state of beer in the U.S. when you got involved with brewing?
There were a dozen or so very strong brewers. And they were all competing with each other, not on the products, which all tasted alike, [but on price]. So the small family brewers out in the country were under terrible price pressure. You had to sell for less than Budweiser. There was no premium market at all for American beers; there was a small import market. And that's where we saw the opportunity and I think Ken [Grossman] did too—if people would pay a premium for these specialized import beers, then why wouldn't they pay a premium for something special that we would make?
What does "craft" or "micro" brewing really mean in your opinion?
It's someone who's small by design, using the very latest food technology, science, and methods, but in addition to the use of modern knowledge they are using traditional methods. So that the products themselves tend to be old-fashioned in their inspiration—lots of hops, all malt, and of course high-quality raw materials. So it's kind of a new attitude of excellence, combined with tradition, which was quite a new thing [30 years ago]. And to do that and be small. It was unheard of.
What do you think of the current hyperexperimentalism in the industry?
I think it's gotten a little out of hand, but what the heck? It's the golden age for the consumer. There's a tendency today to think if you aren't doing something quite different all the time that you aren't really part of the crowd—we sort of understand that, but we were also trying to resist it a little bit.
But your beers could have been considered hyperexperimental when they came out, right?
Each one of our products, when we started, were absolutely unheard of in the American brewing industry. Anchor Steam was all malt, copper brew house, carbonated entirely naturally, there was just nothing like it. Then came Anchor porter. It was the only real dark beer in America. There were no dark beers, they were colored with caramel! Anchor porter was made with roasted malt. No porter in England at that time! Completely disappeared. Liberty Ale was an all-malt, dry-hopped ale. There were no all-malt ales in England. In England! The home of ale! I don't know, what was next, wheat beer? There were no wheat beers in America when we launched our wheat beer. Everything we did was absolutely mind-boggling, in terms of being radical. It's just that we were so small, no one was writing stories about it. We were just limping along trying to find a market.
Do you feel market pressure to do more "weird beers" now?
Yes we do, a little. See we've done a lot over the years; we did this thing, Ninkasi, 20 years ago, which was what, 1989? We re-created a beer based on what scholars know about brewing in ancient Sumeria, which was 2000 BC. We've had our Christmas ale, which we've been making for 34 years, with secret ingredients. We're not trying to be "weird" or anything. We've done the [brewing with oddball stuff], we just didn’t tell anybody. It's a tiny little world of people who know what we've done. And some years we've done some rather weird things, I mean fun things. And we've had the fun of doing it without showboating.
Why have you and Grossman shied away from showboating?
I don't know, it's one reason we've gotten along well over the years. It's just old-fashioned manners. Mind you we've both blown our horn for sure. We both like being recognized for what we've done, but we don't like to be caught trying to be recognized. And I think he and I both realized we were there early, we did set certain standards, and I would argue, we felt then, that it was an important thing to do from a marketing business point of view, to have high standards. Of not just integrity, but of modesty, respectful, non-egomania. We felt that we wanted to have a relationship with our customers, where they didn't see us as goofballs, but as serious, almost like traditionalists—a scholarly sort of attitude towards beer in order to give it meaning beyond.
What happened once brewing started to take off again?
There were people [who] pretended to be brewers. We had a company here in California which I won't name, they called up and said, "We hear your brewery and office and stuff is really nice, we'd like to come and study it with our architect because we're planning to build an office like that." And they didn't make beer! They pretended to be making beer! They had hired some brewery somewhere to make their beer for them, and they were going to have an office that looked like a brewery office. I said, "You can't come! I'm sorry, I won't show it to you!" I was so mad—they were just pretending.
What about the DIY spirit of building the breweries by hand?
[Ken] is certainly known for that. Both of us have that original microbrewing spirit that the product is everything: It should have distinctiveness and consistency and it should have integrity. That includes the brewing history and all of that, but also that the process be legitimate or genuine, no gimmicks or shortcuts. That's why I've never wanted to give up the title of brewmaster, because I saw these family breweries where the owners didn’t know what was happening. The owner has to be able, in my opinion, to walk out into the brewery and say, "What's going on here?" And know that it's his. It's his brew kettle. He put it in, he found it in Germany, and now they're doing something funny with it. And Ken has had that in spades. And so have I. ... I believe both Ken and I think that we have added real virtues and pluses to the brewing industry in general. People still make fun of beer, but it's a whole new world.