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The Early Years of Craft Beer: The Resonating Influence of Fritz

January 3, 2020  |  By Brian Hatheway

The story of American Craft Beer is long, complex, and loaded with so many important figures and key moments. To explain it all would take tens of thousands of words and while that’s something we may do one day, this single post will attempt to sum up the early days of the American Craft Beer revolution in under one thousand words. We understand you’ve probably had a beer or two so we’ll limit ourselves.

To properly explain the origins of craft beer in America, we need to explain what led to those first few craft breweries opening. The beer industry thrived during the industrial revolution. Breweries opened in every major city across the country and only continued to grow following the scientific advancements of the late 1800s. Fueled by Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the role of yeast in fermentation and his push for cleanliness in breweries, the US brewing industry expanded to over 4000 breweries strong at the turn of the century. It seemed as if nothing could slow down this juggernaut of an industry. Until something did.

The third wave of the temperance movement was defined by the Anti-Saloon League. The ASL used a tactic known as pressure politics to strong arm politicians into advancing legislation that suited their interests. The ASL pushed for a national prohibition and in 1917, the 18th Amendment to the US constitution was proposed by Congress, declaring that the production, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages to be illegal. The amendment was ratified in 1919 and went into effect in 1920. This, obviously, destroyed the brewing industry in America, leaving the country with approximately 160 breweries in 1933 when the 21st amendment repealed prohibition. 

During prohibition, the breweries that survived mostly made something known as near beer, a non-alcoholic beverage brewed similarly to beer but with a chemical process to remove the alcohol before packaging. Following the 21st Amendment, most breweries were brewing a style similar to near beer, just without the near part. They left the alcohol in and this homogenous landscape left the beer market stale. 

Following WWII, more breweries closed and the largest breweries at the time, Budweiser and Miller began their decades-long push for a complete monopoly of the US beer market. They began purchasing regional brands that were struggling and independent breweries dwindled away. But the 60s and 70s would change that. 

Fritz Maytag was the Great Grandson of Frederick Louis Maytag, founder of the Maytag Washing Machine company and was drinking his normal beverage, Anchor Steam when he heard the brewery that produced his favorite beer was closing soon. It was 1965 and he was advised to go check out this brewing company as it was right down the street and was worth a look before it shuttered its doors.

Two days later Fritz paid a visit to the brewery and purchased a 51% stake in the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco for “less than the price of a used car”, Fritz’s words. Many say this purchase started a revolution.  We could go on and on about Anchor’s contribution to craft beer – the influence of its flagship, Anchor Steam, the birth of the American pale ale with Liberty Ale in 1976, or the ever evolving evergreen beer(pun intended) that is Anchor Christmas Ale –  just know that Anchor was the brewery that started it all. 

Craft beer essentially branches out from Fritz and Anchor like a family tree. Anchor inspired Jack McAuliffe to start New Albion Brewing Company in 1976 in Sonoma, California. Now chances are you probably haven’t heard of New Albion but Jack McAuliffe and his small Sonoma brewery would inspire hundreds if not thousands during its short six year existence. And from those inspired masses, the largest names in craft beer arose – Jim Koch, Sam Calgione, and Ken Grossman,  were all admirers of Jack’s and his New Albion Ale. 

Jim Koch would go on to start Samuel Adams in 1985, a company that is now the 2nd largest craft brewery in the US. Sam would start Dogfish Head in 1995 and become arguably the first craft beer celebrity. With his unique approach to brewing and inclusion of culinary ingredients, Sam and Dogfish Head would go on to fuel the industry and inspire many through the turn of the century. Uncoincidentally, Samuel Adams would eventually acquire Dogfish Head in 2019.

Many would argue however, that the most influential of New Albion’s admirers was Ken Grossman and his Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. All of the aforementioned breweries and individuals have influenced craft beer but no brewery has defined the beer industry better or defined a style better, than Sierra Nevada. From its humble beginnings, fabricating a brewhouse from used farming equipment, Ken Grossman grew Sierra Nevada into the third largest craft brewery in the US. Their flagship beer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, is the definitive example of the American Pale Ale and has inspired countless hopheads and survived the ebbs & flows of every beer trend through four decades. 

Anchor may have been the brewery that started it all, but Sierra Nevada is the brewery whose immeasurable influence has fueled the growth of the American brewing industry from a few dozen to nearly 10,000 breweries.

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