Quite a few years ago I was in the parking lot at Giants Stadium, tailgating before a Jets game with my friend John (whose family, by the way, has had Jets season tickets since they were called the Titans!). Following tradition, we had pounded down what now seems to me a sickening amount of beer (probably Rolling Rock) in a very short time, and eaten an equally sickening amount of Doritos in preparation for the kickoff. This served two purposes—first, it eased the pain from the lousy football the Jets were playing; more important, it kept us from buying too many of those flat, watered-down, piss-poor Budweisers they sell in the stadium.
As we walked closer to the stadium, a limousine pulled up near the gate and a vaguely familiar, older man stepped out with his entourage. I didn’t give it much thought until some guy even drunker than I was approached the man, pointed at him, smiled and said “YOU’RE THE MAYTAG MAN!” The man returned the drunkard’s smile, shook his hand, and simply said “Yes.” Suddenly everyone seemed to recognize him, and it was a beautiful moment. This icon of consumer culture had drawn us drunken Jets fans together in a way that our football team never could—not even with Boomer or Tuna on board. And this was the REAL Maytag Man, mind you, not that poseur of the later ads (“Big Guy” from “WKRP in Cincinnati”).
It was a fun encounter at the time, but only recently have I come to realize the larger significance the Maytag Man would hold in my beer drinking life. For it was Fritz Maytag—heir to the washing machine fortune—who in 1965 bought the Anchor Brewing Company, saving it from oblivion and making it possible for us to continue enjoying Anchor Steam Beer.
Anchor Steam is the best known of the eight beers crafted by this still-small San Francisco brewery. (Others you may have heard about include Liberty Ale and Old Foghorn Ale.) There are several explanations regarding the origin of the “Steam” name. The two most plausible are that when the kegs were tapped, the pressure released made a steam-like hissing sound, or perhaps the name came because of the fascination with steam power that existed at the time Anchor started brewing (1896).
One of the things that makes Anchor Steam so special is that it represents the one and only beer style that is indigenous to the United States. In the late 19th Century, lagers—which are bottom fermenting and require cooler temperatures than their top-fermenting ale cousins—were becoming increasing popular. Refrigeration was a luxury not yet enjoyed in 1896 San Francisco, so the folks at Anchor improvised on their west coast lager by using shallow fermentation vessels that helped it cool faster. Anchor Steam, therefore, is a sort of lager/ale hybrid; an American original and a style of beer that Anchor has trademarked.
The result is wonderful. Anchor Steam pours beautifully and is dark amber in color, with a full, creamy, off-white head. The taste reminds me a little bit of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, except Anchor Steam is sweeter and maltier, and far more complex. You first notice its richness, then pick up on some subtle spices, and finally finish with a refreshingly bitter yet clean aftertaste.
To his credit, Mr. Maytag kept his brewery small and did not compromise the quality his beer by going for multinational gigantism as the family’s appliance operation did. In fact, Anchor Steam was well ahead of the craft-brewing craze so prevalent in the US, and continues produce on a relatively small scale. Anchor’s website, while thin on information, celebrates this local artisan pride and includes a gallery of brewery snapshots and Anchor Steam drinkers. In fact, Janis Joplin appears in one of the photos. It should come as no surprise that her glass seems to be quite a bit emptier than those of her friends. Janis no doubt enjoyed a good buzz, and had very good taste in beer.
It also bears mentioning that Anchor puts its beer in what I think are some of the most beautiful bottles out there. The shape is elegant and the label artwork is charming and almost cartoonish. It’s hard to explain, but for some reason you just know you look good when you’re holding a bottle of Anchor Steam.
The primary drawback to this small scale, great taste and good looks is price. A six-pack usually goes for something in the $9.00+ range. (I recently picked some up at a local distributor for about $7.59, but I have a feeling the guy behind the counter made a mistake in my favor.) Although think that Anchor Steam can be criminally expensive, I still recommend splurging for some every now and then. You won’t be let down, and as an American it’s your civic duty to try the country’s single original contribution to the beer world. You’ll thank the Maytag Man you did.