Ushering in what could be a new era for one of the country's most iconic breweries, Anchor Brewing Company announced Monday that founder Fritz Maytag sold the business to the Griffin Group. The acquirer is a boutique investment company based in Novato, California, and led by alcohol-industry veterans Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio, who helped to develop Skyy Vodka. The new owners will work with Maytag, who will serve as chairman emeritus of the new corporate entity, to "maintain the iconic brewery and distillery in San Francisco," according to a release.
Maytag, the 72-year-old entrepreneur behind the Anchor Steam brand, is an icon all by himself: The great grandson of the founder of the Maytag Corporation, he bought the small brewery in 1965, reviving and renaming it. Over the years that followed, Maytag grew Anchor Brewing into one of the country's first and finest craft beermakers—one that inspired scores of other brewers in the United States.
"He really helped kick-start the craft beer movement in the U.S.," says Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada, a craft brewery based nearby in Chico, California.
When he was starting out at Anchor, Maytag learned the skills of brewing and tinkered with Anchor's recipe to create an improved Anchor Steam beer that debuted in 1971. Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham wrote in 2005 that Maytag's formula was an instant success.
Within four years, the brewery had maxed out its production capacity. Soon thereafter, Maytag was forced to ration the number of cases distributors could buy. He remembers the next few years as a nightmare. Customers were beating down his door, and there was simply no way he could satisfy the demand. He desperately looked for a new site, but he limited himself to locations in San Francisco out of respect for the historical connection between the city and the beer. Finally he found an old coffee roastery, where the brewery moved in 1979. Maytag vowed he would never go through rationing again.
But the popularity of Anchor Brewing's beers continued to grow. By the early 1990s, Maytag was facing the real possibility of another capacity shortage. He considered going public to raise capital, but rejected the idea because he didn't want the kind of growth he would have to pursue if he took on investors. Size, he believed, was the enemy of quality. "This was not going to become a giant company - not on my watch," he says.
Of course, even in spite of Maytag's efforts, the company has grown steadily over the years. So have his business interests, which also include a vineyard and a family-owned blue cheese company, based in Iowa. So why sell now? "Well, he's in his 70s and I'm sure, as all of us do, he's thinking about what he wants to do with the years we've got left and wanted to select the right team to continue with his company," Grossman says.
The Sierra Nevada founder adds that he's hopeful that, because the Griffin Group is based locally, Anchor will remain in its hometown of San Francisco. "It's very much connected to the city it would be great to see it continue as a Bay Area institution," he says.
New owners Greggor and Foglio are alcohol-industry figures who grew Skyy Vodka before selling their portion of the Skyy Spirits company to Campari in 2007. A year later, the partners bought a majority position in Preiss Imports, a specialist alcohol-maker. In 2009, they invested in BrewDog, one of Britan's biggest independent breweries, with the intention of importing the product to the U.S.
As for Anchor's future, Greggor said in a release: "I am honored to bring Anchor Brewing Company into our family of craft beers and artisanal spirits."
In a statement, Maytag said: "The Griffin Group is ushering in an exciting era while maintaining our proud, time-honored history. Combining Keith and Tony's passion for the Anchor Brewing Company, their industry experience and expertise only means that Anchor will be enjoyed in San Francisco for generations to come."