San Francisco's Anchor Brewing was one of the pioneers of the modern microbrewery movement. We're thrilled to welcome Anchor's longtime brewmaster, Mark Carpenter, to Serious Eats for a chat about Anchor's history and future, the challenges of being a brewmaster, and the super-secret Christmas Ale recipe.
How did you learn to brew? When did you know you wanted to brew professionally?
I started at Anchor in 1971, and there were only five people working at the brewery at the time. We weren't selling much beer, maybe 1000 barrels the first year. We were brewing every other week, and it was the perfect environment for learning. Fritz Maytag sent us to brewing school. You know, as far as when I figured out that I wanted to brew professionally—it was 1971...The late sixties was an amazing time to be in San Francisco, with the antiwar scene and the music scene, and many people were looking for a lifestyle change. I guess that had its affect on me. I was working for a phone company and I wasn't happy. I took a tour of Anchor, and then took a temporary job; now it's my 40th anniversary with the brewery. Time flies and it feels like days.
What is your day-to-day life like at the brewery?
Around 6 am, I get in and start up the filtering for the day. I check out everything that's going on in the brewery, and that wakes me up a bit, and then other people take over everything. By 7 am, I'm figuring out if everything is working, making sure a few ongoing projects are going well, and then, well, I just wait for things to go wrong. As a brewmaster, you go to what's needed; you'll never be bored. Little things come up; somebody has to leave, the bottles that were supposed to come haven't arrived. Or sometimes, infrequently, it's something bigger; a breakdown in the crowning machine means a more major setback.
What's the most exciting part about brewing at Anchor?
The most exciting thing was working for Fritz Maytag. He recently sold the company and retired, but I'm still here. When I started at Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam. Fritz was so creative, he wanted to be known for more. So he thought a lot about what to do next; what other beers to make. First, there was Anchor Porter. There weren't really other porters in the US at that time. Then we created Liberty Ale, which was the first dry hopped pale ale; probably one of the most widely copied beers in the country. That whole Northern California style of beer, with Cascade hops, started with Liberty.
Then we added the Old Foghorn barleywine, and the summer wheat beer. Then Fritz wanted to get into distilling, so in the 90s we started with gin and whiskey. Of course, there were projects that never really went anywhere. We looked into making hard cider years ago, but it just wasn't for us.
What are the biggest challenges in the job?
One of the big challenges is to maintain creativity after all these years; it falls on me to keep the ideas coming. I have a great crew to help; but it's tricky to come up with ideas for beers that aren't just unusual, but also really good. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a trendy high alcohol and high hop beer, but I'm really aiming for a beer you can enjoy a 20-ounce pint of, like in England. You can't enjoy the quantity you want with a really high alcohol beer.
We've just released Brekle's Brown in California. It really hits the spot; it's gotten a really good reaction here. It's 6% ABV, and has a very interesting citrusy hop aroma from Citra hops.
Anchor sold last year to Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor. So far, what has that meant for company?
It's been pretty seamless; we're focused on making our beer and staying creative. We have an all new accounting system, and so the office manager Linda Rowe is working really hard on that, and deserves a lot of credit. The new owners were happy with my idea of the Brekles Brown, so we can pretty much continue doing what we think will work.
Can we anticipate any new brews from the Anchor crew in the coming year? Will the Brekles make it out to the East Coast?
The Brekles is draft only, and only in Northern California. We did about 300 barrels of it. But that doesn't mean that other new brews will be so small. If a new beer is really popular, we might move it into a bottle form.
What's your favorite beer that you brew at Anchor?
That's easy for me to answer. When I came here, we only made Steam beer. And it's still about 80% of the beer that I drink.
Tell us a bit about the brewing of Anchor's annual Christmas ale. How much does the recipe actually change each year?
The Christmas beer started in 1975 as a pale ale. We did a special brew for the bicentennial of Paul Revere's ride, called Liberty Ale. Christmas 1975 through '83 saw the evolution of Liberty Ale, but then we decided it was great, and we wanted to brew that recipe full time, not as a seasonal any more.
So then we made a Christmas ale based on a brown ale, which evolved, and then we moved toward more of a Wassail model. We didn't necessarily think we'd keep it going, but we kept changing it, removing spices, putting in spices. We've tried to see it as an evolution process; we're not just changing the Christmas Ale for change's sake. We want the new additions and the revisions to add something. Over the years, it's become really wonderful, and much more drinkable. I usually sit down with my first bottle at Thanksgiving, and that's so nice.
It's fun to keep the recipe secret. Everyone wants to guess; and I can't confirm or deny what's in it, except that it has never contained allspice. Everyone who works in the brewery; even part time employees or students, get to know what's in it. It's not a secret from them. But we always tell them, having the secret makes it more fun, and ask them not to reveal it (under pain of death.) The secret's not out; you rarely see someone get it right on the internet.
How do you define "craft beer"? What do you think is the future of American beer?
Oh, for me, it's what you see at Anchor. When I look at a brewery, I hope to see a traditional copper brewhouse and hands-on brewing. Craft beer is using whole hop flowers. It's handmade beer, made by people who are really involved in lending their best effort and best ideas to the beer.
There will always be light beers; there's a huge market for that, and the macro breweries have great success with light beers. But the craft segment for all other beers is going to keep growing. Look at what's happened in coffee; people just got used to fancier coffee and now demand it everywhere they go. The taste for real beer is growing; and that taste cannot be satisfied by industrial yellow beer. People are getting used to flavorful beer, and they won't go back. Still, even if those big industrial breweries lost only a tiny percentage of their sales, that would be a huge number of bottles for us.