Brewer has a way with whiskey

Hobby: San Francisco's Fritz Maytag is taking microbrews a step further, producing whiskey in his "microdistillery."

September 12, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | By Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - Fritz Maytag stands in front of two large copper-pot stills, steam rising from a dozen feet of twisting pipes. He dips his finger under a stream of clear liquid flowing into a stainless-steel bucket and brings it to his mouth.

A look of concentration crosses his face, like a mad scientist tasting his brew.

"You can taste the fragrance," he says approvingly.

Maytag's pot stills, for gin and whiskey, are his new hobby, and the latest trend of his that others are already copying.

This "microdistillery," which Maytag says makes the only pot-distilled whiskey in America - the only legal pot-distilled whiskey, that is - takes up just a small corner of Maytag's Anchor Brewing Co. But Maytag has big plans, much as he did three decades ago when he walked into this small warehouse, where the electricity had been shut off for failure to pay and the beer kegs were about to be handed over to creditors.

He deemed the place charming, and set about turning the derelict brewery, with roots in San Francisco's pioneer days, into one of the nation's most successful craft brewers - a forerunner for the microbrewing industry that has brought distinctive beer to all corners of the country.

These days, Anchor is a bustling brewery, turning out 100,000 barrels of beer a year, and about 53 gallons of whiskey a week.

For $60 to $90 a bottle, Maytag offers two kinds of whiskey, as well as a $30 gin, distilled in the back of his brewery and aged in barrels stacked high in a storage room. He began distilling in 1993 and sold the first bottle in 1996, though he's not finished tinkering with the flavor.

"The whole process intrigues me," Maytag says. "It's an opportunity to have some fun and make history."

When Maytag took over the company that makes Anchor Steam Beer in 1965, small, family-run breweries were on the wane, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with large national brewers. Many chose the route of selling cheap beer and trying to make it taste like Budweiser.

Maytag wanted to sell rich, hoppy beer that cost a little more. His business philosophy was to "sell a little bit everywhere," and because he could produce only 600 barrels of beer a year with his one employee, a little bit was all he sold. But his theory quickly began working. He developed a niche, a loyal base of customers and a name.

"Back then, a lot of people would say, `Oh, look at the funny little local beer,' " Maytag says, while showing a visitor around the brewery. "Even today, overwhelmingly, we're trying to brew a beer most people won't like. But a handful of people could see what we were trying to do and said, `Fabulous.' "

When Maytag took over, the brewery had been churning out beer in kegs, brewed warm if the weather was warm, and brewed cold if the weather was cold. Sometimes the beer went sour before it had even left the shop.

Maytag added refrigeration to guarantee quality, but kept the handmade copper brew kettles and all-malt mash. He believes the quality of the Anchor Steam product has helped to fend off the ever-present competitors ready to take its place.

By the 1980s, dozens of microbreweries had popped up across the country to follow Anchor Steam's lead. In several cases, some of the microbrewed beers replicated almost identically the tastes and textures of Maytag's seven beers - a porter, wheat beer, lager and several ales - all perfected over decades.

He thought the competition couldn't get worse in the 1980s, but it doubled in the 1990s as microbrews entered the mainstream and the public couldn't get enough of them.

"It got to where it was not easy to do something that was valuable and exciting," he says. "So many other people were doing the exact same thing and, frankly, even some weird things. Someone would make a strawberry-chocolate stout and you'd say, `Oh, you mean another one of those?' "

The beer company that was the eccentric in the field for decades was suddenly considered almost traditional.

"It's fun being emulated," Maytag says, "but when you stand up and realize you're leading a parade, it's a little bit disheartening."

And that's when Maytag got his next idea. He began reading books about food and spirits and it struck him that whiskey is really distilled beer.

"It's taking beer to the last step - converting the grains to sugar and letting it start to grow," he says. "I thought let's go back to the original whiskey. Nobody was making anything like that."

He started playing with all-rye mash, which he believes 18th-cen- tury Americans used in their whiskeys. And while he was at it, he thought, why not distill some gin, too?

He ran into several problems. Micro-distilled whiskey can't age in barrels for as long as traditional whiskeys and still be profitable. And, because of an arcane 1933 federal law, rye whiskey can't be called straight rye whiskey unless it is aged in new charred oak barrels.

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