A Conversation with Fritz Maytag: The Man Himself

Posted by Tyler Blomstrom-Moore on Apr 14th 2016

A Conversation with Fritz Maytag: The Man Himself

When asked if I wanted to interview a brewmaster at Anchor Steam named Fritz Maytag, I simply thought “Hell yes!” The question was remarkably unassuming, and I figured Fritz was a younger gentleman who had been brewing at Anchor for a few years, and also just so happened to have a great name. Upon conducting research for my line of questioning, I was taken aback. Fritz Maytag is the man himself.

A brief history lesson – Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III is the heir to the Maytag Appliance Company, he is Chairman of the Board of the Maytag Dairy Farms, and he is also the owner of the York Creek Vineyards in St. Helena, California. A jack-of-all-trades. Oh, did I mention he purchased Anchor Steam in the 60s, completely and wholeheartedly making the well-known and cherished local San Francisco brewery what it is today?

As I previously mentioned – the man himself.

I was intimidated to say the very least. But I was equally excited to be gifted this opportunity, and to be able to speak to such a revered man in a colloquial setting who inadvertently beset upon me the self-spoken phrase – “an Anchor a day keeps the doctor away.” Beyond this, I found the sheer humility, kindness, and welcoming earnestness embodied by Fritz – someone with vast experience and a number of accolades – to be comfortably grounding.

SFP: You are considered the forefather of modern microbreweries. How do you personally feel about that title?

Fritz: At first they called me the godfather. And I didn’t like that. But sure, I understand. We—I say “we” but I mean the tiny group of people that helped me build Anchor into a modern brewery with really high quality products—we were way ahead. It was about ten years after we started when people began to see what we had done, and thought about doing it themselves. They’d come to us and we’d give them a lot of help and encouragement. So in a way, it wasn’t so much an insult as it was a compliment. We were sort of the forerunner and the encourager of the movement. And we’re proud of it.

Your family owns a “few” very large companies. What drove you to take over and reinvigorate a—at the time—small and unprofitable SF-based brewery? Why did you choose to revive Anchor in particular?

Without wanting to quibble, when you say “owned several large companies”, that’s really not true. Mind you, the Maytag Company in its day was famously small. So if you changed your question to: “The Maytag Appliance Company of which your father was president was famous both for its high quality and being much smaller than its competitors. Do you think that has rubbed off on you?” I would respond that I definitely do.

I didn’t realize it for quite awhile, but if your name is Maytag, people come up to you from all over the world to say, “My mother loved her washing machine!” Maytag was famous for quality. I grew up in an environment in which being different—specifically being smaller and of high quality—was valued.

As to why I invested in the Anchor? I didn’t really think of it as an investment; I thought of it as a lark. If some guy says “I got a Model T that doesn’t run very well, but I’ll sell it to you for fifty bucks”, how could you lose? Gradually I got deeper and deeper into my pride of Anchor, which forced me to stay in. I didn’t want to fail.

In this, you jumpstarted a massive microbrewery trend across the nation in which brewers have credited you as their inspiration. Was their any particular inspiration that drove you to pursue your Anchor endeavor?

When exploring the wine world, I met a man up in Napa named Lee Stuart. He had a very small, very high quality and high integrity winery. He didn’t advertise. He depended on the quality of the wine, and personally had a very laconic, non-pushy, confident style that I just admired incredibly. I kind of modeled my early years of selling, marketing, and producing off of him. Years later I read an article quoting a young winemaker I had never met. She said “Everything I know about marketing and sales I learned from Fritz Maytag”, and I thought “HA! All I ever did was low key.” We had the same aw shucks attitude I learned from Lee Stuart.

You were born in Iowa. What was your childhood like? What eventually brought you out West?

In most every way, I had a typical ideal childhood of a boy in a small mid-western town. The mid-west is known for simple, old-fashioned values. People often make fun of it, but it was a wonderfully wholesome childhood. And I am very grateful for it. My sister was a year ahead of me and very smart. She figured Stanford was where she wanted to go and I just followed her. The guys wore Levis and there were cute girls all around, and you could have a car and live off campus. In those days it was considered the best private university in the West. California was a great mystery to us, and that’s why I went to Stanford. I flunked out my first year because I had such a wonderful time, and had to go to summer school to get back. I fell in love with the California summer. I remember the very first one, believe me. I loved the brown hills, the warm days, and the blue sky.

Do you believe your education at Stanford helped you accomplish everything you have with Anchor? Or were there other more important factors?

I would simply say that I am a true believer in the liberal arts education as a way to get started. To that extent, I do believe that it has been a tremendous benefit to me. I have an open mind, and an understanding of the marvelous complexities of the world. I am very grateful that I did not specialize in chemistry or engineering, but rather liberal arts. So yes, my education had a big influence on me.

What is one of your best memories while owning Anchor, and what is one of your worst?

In the early years, we were very small. When we started bottling there were only five of us. My office manager used to have to come and help us on the bottling line, and there was a sense of adventure to that. We had a lot of wonderful moments when we first began. The first day we ever bottled Anchor Steam I said, “This is it. I don’t care how bad the labels look, or whether the bottles look half-full, we’re gonna go for it.” I was watching those bottles come down that conveyer belt —sixty bottles a minute—and I can still tell you exactly how it sounds. I had discovered mass production. It was an absolutely thrilling moment.

Worst moment—mind you, anyone in business has some pretty bad moments. One of my worst was when we were trying desperately to get people to know that Anchor existed. Long before we were bottling, we decided to have a party and we invited everybody. From the mayor, to Benny Bufano, to Ferlinghetti—everyone we could think of. But when we got ready for the party, we realized that all the beer we had was sour. I panicked. I mean, imagine inviting everybody and not having good beer. So I went down to this place on the peninsula that had a really, really cold storage box and used to buy 6 to 8 kegs at a time. I had just delivered the order, but went back with a lie. I said, “The beer we gave you is so good, we want to test it to see what we did right. Can we have some of those kegs back?” And they said “Sure,” so I took them back and everything at the party ended up being great.

Something I personally love, and I assume a large amount of your drinkers do as well, is the art by Jim Stitt paired with your beers. How was Jim picked as the artist? Did you give him a direction or inspiration, or did you allow for him to have full agency in his work for Anchor Steam?

Jim has become a really close friend, and we have had a wonderful partnership. I designed the original Anchor Steam label. I worked and worked and worked on it, but I didn’t like it. So I gave it to an artist who was famous for doing handmade type graphic art. I wanted it to look handmade and funky because we were trying hard to not be fancy and slick like all the other imports that had gold labels and were simply trying to look like champagne. We were just a funny little company and hardly knew what we were doing.

The artist gave me a bunch of other ideas and I kept saying, “No, I like my label but I want you to fix it.” I learned a great lesson from that in realizing that if we had one art director, all of the labels would have a similar character. That was the reason I ultimately went with Jim Stitt. He was known for hand-drawn pieces, and he became my guy. Jim and I created label after label as a team, and I’m very proud of having stuck with him. Not just for the labels having a cohesive look, but for having a rapport. Him and I became practically one.

If you had to choose, which Anchor brew are you most proud of?

[laughter from Fritz] They say you love all your children the same, but of course it’s not true. You love them in different ways, right? Steam was my first one, and I really created it. It was really the only beer like it in the world. I’d have to say that’s the one I’m most proud of. I do have a soft spot for Anchor Porter, because that was our first new beer. I can remember very clearly the first time we ever brewed it. I was opening the bags of black malt that give it that rich black color and flavor. I started dropping the barley down into the mill and it smelled like espresso coffee, and I thought “Oh my god! They sent us coffee.” After a second look I knew that it was malt—we’d just never brewed black malt before—and it was a great product right from the start. I’m proud of that as a branching out point for Anchor.

Do you have a favorite brewery, or specific beer other than Anchor? If so, why?

Coors. They were an inspiration with the technical help they provided me, and were the most modern big brewery in the world. There was a wonderful camaraderie between the breweries at the brewmaster level. They helped me again and again, and I admired the integrity of their company. I used to keep Coors Light in my refrigerator, partly because of my admiration for them, and partly because I wanted to prove to people what I used to say at Anchor: “Look, there are different kinds of beers, and you have different kinds of situations. If you’re sitting by the fire reading a good book on a rainy winter night, you might want to drink Anchor Porter. If you’re having a good meal with nice flavors, you’ll want Steam. And if you just mowed the lawn, you might want Coors Light.”

If you could give one piece of advice to a budding brewer, or small business owner, what would it be?

Put it in the bottle. In other words, focus on the product. I used to say, “We’re trying to put quality, integrity, tradition, and a theme into our beer, and it has to be distinctive and noticeably different in flavor, but also in thought.” So, put it in the bottle.

How do you envision Anchor evolving over the next 50 years?

Anchor has leadership right now that’s very aware of our tradition. They’re focusing on quality and history, and I’m hoping they’ll continue to do that. I know they want to grow. I liked having the brewery be small, and I was able to do that, but I think Anchor will grow bigger, and probably become more interesting. They’ve got good ideas. I think it will maintain its independence and the creativity of being a leader in the industry.