Anchor brewmaster a craft beer pioneer

Beer Pick: Anchor California Lager

Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco, Calif.

$9.99/six-pack bottles; also available on draft at beer bars and restaurants.

Profile: Recently introduced to the Atlanta market, Anchor California Lager is a classic all malt beer that goes back to historic pre-Prohibition brewing. It's made with two-row California barley, Cluster hops, which were used by 19th-century California breweries, and Anchor's own lager yeast. The result is a crisp, refreshing brew, with clean bitterness and a smooth finish, making it perfect for session drinking.

Pair with: Try California Lager with spicy dishes and seafood, but it will also play nice with your favorite pub grub, including burgers, nachos and wings.

For anyone interested in the history of American craft beer, Mark Carpenter, brewmaster at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., is a primary source, mainly because he was there almost from the beginning, over 40 years ago.

When legendary Anchor owner Fritz Maytag hired Carpenter in 1971, there were only five employees at what’s now widely considered America’s first craft brewery and they were making just one beer, Anchor Steam.

But other iconic styles followed, including Porter, Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn and years of Christmas Ale iterations. And after Maytag sold Anchor to a pair of Bay Area entrepreneurs in 2010, Carpenter stayed on to help preserve and expand the brand.

Carpenter was in Atlanta recently, working with accounts and appearing at some Beer Week events. I caught up with him at Cypress Street Pint & Plate, where we sat down with pints of Anchor California Lager, and I asked him about the changes he’s seen over the years.

“People focus on the more recent changes,” Carpenter said. “But when I started with Fritz, there were only 40 other breweries in the U.S. Now you look at what’s happened. There are something like 2,600 breweries. So, yeah, I’ve seen a lot of changes.”

While Anchor’s pioneering status is unrivaled, many newer craft breweries rank above it in sales. Carpenter said the new owners are determined to grow the company and have invested in new equipment and added sales staff to do that. Adding new lagering tanks in the brewery to produce California Lager, first bottled in 2013, is one example.

Asked about the perception of Anchor as too traditional and maybe even old-fashioned in a time of hopped-up, anything goes beer, Carpenter is quick to take issue.

“I’ll challenge you on that one and I’ll tell you why,” he said. “If you look back at our Liberty Ale, which we first brewed in 1975, it was quite radical at the time. We never called it an IPA, but it was an IPA, and it’s the same beer today. And we produced the first barleywine in the U.S. with Old Foghorn. Over the years, we really have done some unusual things.”

Carpenter said Anchor Steam remains the top seller, followed by Liberty. But California Lager has quickly moved into third place and may overtake Liberty soon.

“The Lager really seems to resonate with people,” Carpenter said. “Maybe it’s the pendulum swinging back the other way from all the IPAs.”