I have written a lot about the Anchor
Brewing Company because it and its owner Fritz Maytag have long been
icons in the craft beer movement. For instance, it was to Fritz Maytag
that Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi turned for advice and start-up
equipment in the late 1970s to get the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
off the ground. He looked back at the traditional brewing styles that
were being neglected by the American industry during that era an began
producing a barleywine, a porter, and the first wheat beer brewed in
the US since Prohibition began on January 16, 1920.
Maytag also helped revive the custom of brewing heartier ales during
the winter known as Christmas Ales. In 1987, he went to the fullest
extent possible in that style by making a spiced winter ale known in
Britain as Wassail, and by design its recipe was to change each year.
Here’s where I come in. Those who have read some of my tales about
“back in the day” might have gotten the slightest whiff of a
self-ascribed air of infallibility regarding my instincts and vision
about the craft beer movement.
Believe me—this episode certainly exposes me at least once as a
total dunderhead who completely failed to appreciate what would turn
out to be one of the most beloved beers that ever graced my little pub.
In the autumn of 1987 I got a call from Anchor Brewing
representative Bob Brewer. I was planning my first tour of the brewery
and he let me know he had “something special” to taste when I got there.
The tour ended and I was headed for the airport when Bob pulled me
aside and stuck a plain brown unmarked case of beer in my arms. “It’s
our Christmas ale this season,” he explained. “It’s spiced…although I
can’t reveal the recipe its got stuff like nutmeg and clove and orange
flower water. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever tasted,” he said
Boy, was he right about that part.
I arrived at SFO carrying the case of beer in my arms, so excited to
taste this new miracle I could barely breathe. I talked a bartender
there into opening a bottle and I drank. Bob’s words echoed back…”like
nothing you’ve ever tasted.”
It was the strangest sensation I remembered ever having. What was
promised as nectar of the gods was the scariest stuff I’d ever
encountered. It didn’t taste like beer at all. It was so strange that I
knew when I tried to sell it at Father’s Office I would be laughed
right out the door.
It couldn’t be!! What were they thinking?! It tasted ridiculous! Not
just me, but the entire Anchor Brewery would be a laughingstock.
I had to get word to Bob Brewer right away! I had to find a pay
phone fast! My flight was boarding as I searched! Finally I found a
phone! But I had no change! I found some fast! I dialed quickly! Bob
“Bob!” I yelled, “I don’t think I can sell this!”
He calmly and patiently let me rant, then said “Just relax, People
who know this style very well have tried it. It’ll do fine. Get on your
plane and we’ll talk when you get home.”
Bob’s words always have had a very calming effect on me. I flew home
and waited with dread for the day when the first kegs would arrive.
The big day came and I tapped one, looking at the eager young faces
at my bar waiting for what they thought would be Nirvana, and what I
knew would be the biggest fiasco of my career.
One by one they tasted. Their eyes and faces told the story—their
socks were knocked off. The excited buzz started. “Another, please,” it
began, and by the end of the day we’d sold the entire keg.
That winter we sold 35 kegs of Anchor’s 1987 Christmas ale, making
it to this day the fastest selling beer ever poured at Father’s Office,
which became the largest seller of Anchor Christmas Ale in the entire
world. Bear in mind that thirty other drafts were offered beside it,
and Father’s Office only seated 49.
How good it felt to be right once again.