When you look at the monstrous growth of the modern craft-beer landscape, it’s hard to overstate the importance of Anchor Brewing Company. Without the pioneering San Francisco brewery—which was saved from closure and re-invented by blue-cheese heir Fritz Maytag in 1965—there would be no West Coast-style IPAs, no steam beers, and no such thing as a seasonal.
Anchor’s current brewmaster Mark Carpenter has been along for the ride with Maytag for most of the last 50 years. He first joined the brewing team in 1971 when he was only one of five employees and has since been a part of every new release to come out of the country’s oldest craft brewery.
“Back then there were lots of breweries but it was all just yellow beer competing against each other for price because they’re all the same,” says Carpenter. “Fritz had the vision and the nerve to charge more money for it.”
American brewers are the most innovative in the world today without question.
Craft beer has roots in the freewheeling counter-culture movement of the ’60s, and Anchor channeled that spirit by taking the best of brewing traditions and giving them a new spin. Its signature steam beer—essentially a lager brewed at ale temperatures—derives from a historic style that originated during the Gold Rush, and would have died out if not for Anchor’s revival of it as a modern-day California Common.
Carpenter, who first quit his job at a telephone company to “do something different,” is humble about his accomplishments, merely saying he fell into brewing at the right time. However, over his unprecedented 40-plus-year career in beer, he helped develop the first barleywine to be made in the U.S., oversaw the launch of America’s first Christmas ale, and watched Anchor Steam enter the mainstream market, inspiring countless other craft breweries to launch in its shadow.
“There were under 100 breweries when I started and it got to a low point of 40. Now we have over 3,800. You can’t keep up anymore,” he says. “American brewers are the most innovative in the world today without question.”
As the creator of Brekkles Brown and Anchor IPA, it should be no surprise that that many of Carpenter’s career-changing beers are from his own brewery’s portfolio. Here, the brewing legend takes us from the Anchor beer that started it all, to European sours and back again.
When I started, all we made was Anchor Steam. There were a couple of other beers in the U.S. that were different [tasting] at the time, but only a couple. The first time I drank steam beer—which wasn’t an easy thing to do in those days—it was 1963 and I was at a place in Santa Rosa called Leroy’s Hooch House. I met this girl who was a big deal in my life and I took her to Leroy’s and she said, “What’s that steam beer?” I said, “You know, it’s a little brewery but I’ve never had it.” So we tried some. In those days there was a light and a dark version, but the dark was just regular steam beer with caramel coloring in it. After that, I drank steam from time to time and eventually, I decided I wanted to see the brewery, so I did, in 1970 or so. I thought the place was so great that I should get a job there. Steam beer was just so unique. What made it so different was that it was a real part of California history. It was a funny little thing and a typical example of what people were seeking out in the ‘60s. (Photo courtesy Anchor Steam)
Rainier was just so completely different in flavor and color than the other yellow beers around. I think if Rainier ale had survived another five or ten years they would be huge. Someone is making it now; I went to some beer event recently where they had Rainier so I tried it. But when I saw them pouring it, it was yellow. That’s not Rainier! It used to have the amber color of steam beer and it had a very distinctive hop flavor. I think it was Brewers Gold. The San Francisco Brewers Guild tried to do a duplicate of the old Rainier Ale, but of course we couldn’t call it that, so we called it Green Death. In high school, you would drink Rainier, which came in a green can and was higher in alcohol than other beers, so you’d wind up with a terrible hangover. That’s why it was called Green Death. (Photo: Facebook/Rainier)
Ballantine Pale Ale
It was an East Coast beer so we didn’t get it that often in San Francisco, but a few bars in the city had it. It was yellow in color but had more hop flavor and aroma than just about any other beer at the time. Rainier had the Brewers Gold flavor but not a huge aroma that Ballantine had. Ballantine was one of the inspirations for Liberty Ale. I think Fritz liked those northeastern ales. (Photo: Owlliquors.com)
Anchor Porter was a real game-changing beer because it came to Fritz, really, as a necessity: He wanted to replace his fake dark beer [made with caramel coloring], so we made the porter. This was 1973 and we learned later on from the English beer writer Michael Jackson that when we made that porter, there was not one porter left being made in all of England. That’s how bad their beer scene had gotten. The micro-revolution started here, with beers like our porter, and spread around the world. (Photo courtesy Anchor Steam)
Anchor Liberty Ale
I do believe that Liberty Ale really turned the beer world upside down. When we made our Liberty Ale, Fritz had his memories of Ballantine and Narraganset ale from the Northeast. Then we went to England to do some research and he came home wanting to make a barleywine—which turned out to be the first barleywine in the U.S.—and a dry-hopped ale, so we made Liberty. We used Cascade hops, which was not used as an aroma hop by anyone yet. Then, Sierra Nevada used it in their pale ale and it spread to other brewers. You can go to Munich today and there are brewers there making beers with Cascade that more resemble West Coast IPAs than spring bocks. When you have German brewers in Munich making American-style IPAs, that’s when you know the beer world is upside down. Now there are hop growers developing for aroma. Before Liberty, aroma was always an afterthought. (Photo: Americabeerbuzz.com)
Lagunitas IPA made the whole IPA category. We made lots of beers that could’ve been called IPAs but we gave them other names like pale ales. We never used the term IPA. There may have been other breweries who did before Lagunitas, but Lagunitas deserves the credit for creating the IPA as a category. With it, Lagunitas built a market for so many other microbreweries to come out with IPAs of their own. A few years ago, I was asked by the new owners to develop an IPA, and I was definitely thinking of Lagunitas and a few others when developing the recipe. I looked around at the IPAs and tried to pick out different aspects of what I like and made a blend. (Photo: Kegnbottle.com)
Anchor Christmas Ale
We made the first Christmas Ale in 1975. At that time, there really were not any Christmas beers. It really became one of the first seasonals in the U.S. Now, seasonals are so important to craft beer. Each year the beer was themed around a tree, and Fritz always picked the tree. Trees are an important part of that time of year, and rather than putting a Christmas tree all the time, he would put a different tree on the label. Usually, it would be one that had some sort of meaning in his life that year. Even when we released a wheat beer as a summer seasonal, the distributors said the Christmas beer was “okay,” but they didn’t want seasonal beers. It was just so weird because now it’s exactly the opposite. (Photo courtesy Anchor Steam)
Guinness is one of the world’s great beers. I’ve been to Ireland once and it’s pretty damn good there. It’s better in Ireland than it is anywhere else. I never really drank Guinness until I was a brewer at Anchor. After I was brewing, Guinness really got me to think about dark beers and the range of dark beers. Our porter was so different than Guinness. They’re both black, but what a huge difference! Recently we did an export stout because I didn’t want to be cloning Guinness. There’s a bit of history of export stouts being sent to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. It was fun to do an export stout that was higher in alcohol using English hops. (Photo: Guinness.com)
Mad Fox Brewing Orange Whip
Bill Madden at Mad Fox Brewing does a fabulous beer with Citra hops called Orange Whip. I love that beer. Before I’d ever tasted it, we did our own Citra beer, Brekkles Brown. It wasn’t a big success, and I think it was because of the name. People don’t like brown ales and aren’t looking for them. But Bill’s is a similar style and it’s been a huge success. I wish I could’ve thought of some cool fanciful name for ours. He and I have talked about doing a collaboration brew with Citra, but Orange Whip always pointed out to me the need for a cool name for your beer. (Photo: Facebook/Mad Fox Brewing Company)
A big game-changer for me was Timmermans in Belgium, where I spent time drinking their sour beers. Until the visit to that brewery, sours were not a category I had any interest in at all. Then, when I had their kriek and their gueuze, it changed everything. I had to find a pharmacy to get some antacids, but it opened my mind to a wider range of beer styles. American brewers are now doing as good a job with Belgian-style beers as any Belgian brewery. We did a saison I was pleased with, with ginger and lemongrass. It’s been fun to work with saison yeast. We haven’t done a sour yet, though maybe someday. (Photo: Facebook/Brewery Timmermans)