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Classic Beer of the Month March 2010: Anchor Old Foghorn

Anchor Old Foghorn, 8.2% (USA)

Much has been written about Fritz Maytag, the man who rescued Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and changed the face of beer in America. If it wasn’t for Fritz, the craft brewing movement would have taken longer to develop, if it ever developed at all. The words penned in his honour are richly deserved.

Anchor Old FoghornIt was in 1965 that Maytag began his journey into beer. In San Francisco, he heard from a bartender that the local ‘steam’ beer company was in a bad way and likely to close.

Fritz decided to find out more. He discovered a company in dire financial straits and, believing in the product, bought into the company, rather in the style of shaver magnate Victor Kiam at Remington.

To put Anchor back on the straight and narrow took more than money. It needed hard graft to improve the brewhouse and the beer, and, of course, it needed a vision to take it forward.

Slowly the fortunes of Anchor Steam began to turn and, with customers now returning to the Anchor fold, expanding the range became a possibility. In 1972, Anchor Porter was added to the selection. Imagine that: a real porter in a country dominated by light lagers. Three years later, Fritz and his team felt ready to push on a little further.

Three New Beers

They launched three new beers. Liberty Ale was created to commemorate Paul Revere’s ride through the night during the American War of Independence on 18 April, 1775. A full-bodied pale ale, with a welter of citrus Cascade hops in the copper, like the porter it turned plenty of heads.

Christmas Ale, with its mysterious spicing, also came on stream, while the third beer introduced in 1975 was Old Foghorn. Its name is a tribute to the sirens that help ships negotiate mist-laden San Francisco Bay, but its origins lie much further afield.

The barley wine tradition belongs to the UK, to the days when country houses had breweries that produced rich, strong ales that were more than a match for wines imported from France. Fritz clearly felt that it was a style of beer that Americans would appreciate and he created his own version, a strong beer with an American accent.

Calling the beer ‘barley wine’, however, proved to be a problem. The authorities frowned upon the mixed title. Was it a beer or was it a wine? The solution was to resort to the rather cumbersome descriptor of ‘barleywine style ale’, and that’s how most such beers are still named in America today.

As for the beer itself, it blew drinkers away – in the right sense. In the recipe, the abundance of pale malt – needed to provide fermentable sugars that the yeast could turn into alcohol of 8%+ – is joined by a little darkness from caramel malt.

Only the first runnings from the mash tun – the concentrated initial extract – are used in this beer and three mashes are required to produce enough wort for one brew. The only hops used are Cascade, in whole leaf form. They are also added dry while the beer is maturing in the brewery cellar.

This is a big, sumptuous chestnut-red beer with dense, creamy bubbles. The aroma is very inviting: fragrant, clean, piney hop resins mingle with citrus and tropical fruits, with gentle caramel in the background.

The overload of taste begins with juicy, fruit-jelly citrus notes and continues with tangy, piney hops, marzipan as the beer warms in the mouth, and a soft, creamy layer of caramel. Sweetness fades as hops and bitterness build in the finish, where fruit, hops and creamy malt linger.

In a nutshell, Old Foghorn is a joy, a big, powerful beer with astonishing complexity and glorious drinkability considering its size and weight.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of American barleywine style ales have followed in this beer’s footsteps, but few have managed to better it.

The beer even triggered a revival of barley wines back in the UK, so the influence of Fritz Maytag is not even confined to his own shores.

Perhaps that part of Fritz's legacy has not been written about quite enough.

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