“When I first tasted it, I thought I could be standing in a pub in England,” says Mark Carpenter, brewmaster at Anchor Brewing Co., of his eponymous Mark’s Mild — a mahogany-colored ale with a soft, palate-caressing chocolate-toffee flavor. The English display a special genius for crafting flavorful, low-alcohol beers, and Mark’s Mild, at 4 percent alcohol by volume, is proof that their American counterparts have acquired the skill as well.
But I’ll settle for a table at R.F.D. Washington, knocking back a pint with Carpenter and hearing this industry icon (he’s been with Anchor since 1971) share stories of his 41 years in brewing.
Appliance heir Fritz Maytag rescued the San Francisco brewery from oblivion in 1965 and built it into the model of a modern craft brewery, augmenting the flagship brand, Anchor Steam, with Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine and other trailblazing beers. Maytag, however, sold the brewery in 2010 to an investment firm called the Griffin Group.
What’s changed in the post-Maytag era? “A larger sales force,” Carpenter answers.
After years of running in place, with production hovering around 90,000 barrels a year, the brewery is growing again. Carpenter says Anchor should produce 110,000 barrels in 2012, a company record. The brewery has added four 290-barrel cellaring tanks, and two more are on their way. Carpenter says a second brewery is an inevitability, although he adds it won’t necessarily be an East Coast branch of the sort Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are constructing.
Carpenter comments on the change in corporate philosophy: “Fritz wanted to have a brewery small enough so he could know everyone, a single-shift, five-day-a-week operation. He wanted to have a business where he’d like to work.”
The new owners, best known for turning Skyy Vodka into a multimillion dollar brand, “have as long a vision as Fritz had.” That vision involves growing the Anchor brand to keep pace with newer, more ambitious breweries.
“I walked into a liquor store, and the owner said, ‘We don’t want to sell Anchor beer. You’re too big!’” recounts Carpenter. “They think we’re up there with Sam Adams!” In fact, Anchor ranks only 22nd among the country’s craft breweries. Dogfish Head is bigger. Lagunitas is bigger. So are Great Lakes, Abita and Long Trail.
The new ownership has given Carpenter the go-ahead to experiment with new beers, including his Zymaster series of single-batch, draft-only brews. Mark’s Mild is the second entry in the series. The first was a California lager of the sort San Francisco brewers might have crafted back in the 1870s. Carpenter hasn’t settled on a formula for the next Zymaster beer, but he says it will be “highly hopped and higher in alcohol,” and will appear in October about the same time as the Great American Beer Festival.
Brekle’s Brown, a year-round bottled product, was Carpenter’s first new beer in the post-Maytag era. It’s an American-style brown ale hopped exclusively with Citra, the same strain of hop used in the popular Orange Whip IPA brewed by Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church. The darker malts, however, tend to mute the bitter, resiny qualities of the hop and accentuate the citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Brekle’s Brown would make an excellent dessert beer.
Carpenter will turn 69 this month. He realizes that a time is approaching to turn the reins over to a younger brew staff. “I’m looking forward to not getting up so early!” says Carpenter, who rises at 4:45 (a.m., that is) on work days. In the meantime, he boasts, “I feel like I’ve got one of the best jobs available today.”
Addendum: Nanny O’Brien’s in Cleveland Park will host an Anchor tap takeover on Thursday, Aug. 16, featuring Mark’s Mild, Brekle’s Brown and five other Anchor draft selections.