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Smithsonian Seminar
By Gregg Wiggins

Smithsonian panelists included Don Barkley, Mendocino Brewing Company; Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing Company; and Fred Bowman, Portland / Pyramid Brewing Company. Photo by Gregg Wiggins

Fritz Maytag’s role in the birth of craft brewing has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution. Also, the beer made at what is often called the first modern craft brewery, Sonoma, Calif.’s New Albion Brewing Company, and an account of the pioneering earliest days of microbrewing in the city of Portland, Ore., were honored too.

Maytag, along with Don Barkley, master brewer for Mendocino Brewing, and Fred Bowman, executive vice president of the Portland Brewing Company, came to Washington, D.C., in April to recap the start of the American microbrewing movement for a Smithsonian Institution seminar, “Beer: A Fermenting Revolution,” held at the Brickskeller, the legendary bar that is Washington’s own beer monument.

“I was honored to be included,” said Bowman, echoing what the other panelists said about the Smithsonian’s invitation, “and this place is such an institution as well,” referring to the Brickskeller.
While all three brought beer, it was Barkley’s that brought back memories. Barkley, a brewer for the seminal New Albion Brewing Company, re-created a batch of New Albion Stout for the occasion. Barkley believes this was the first time any New Albion beer had been made since the brewery closed its doors in 1982.

Maytag, by the way, says he and others at Anchor “take offense” when New Albion is called the first microbrewery. “We understand the incredible effort and pioneering enthusiasm that New Albion had in starting from scratch,” Maytag pointed out at the Brickskeller, “but actually, we think of ourselves as kind of having started all of this.”

Anchor “was truly, really, the last medieval brewery,” was how Maytag described it 40 years later. “All of our equipment was very, very handmade. Just pitiful, really, by modern brewing standards, but it worked — more or less.” At New Albion, Barkley remembered, “all the equipment was old dairy equipment.”

“In those early days,” agreed Bowman, “you had to either find some other kind of equipment and make it work for you or you had to design and have something built yourself.”

As for the beer, all three said today’s craft beers are undoubtedly superior. “Pretty much sour all the time,” admitted Maytag about 1965’s Anchor Steam Beer, “even before it left the brewery.”
“We made great beer, as long as you drank it soon enough,” Barkley said about New Albion, “and that ‘soon enough’ was, well, I think we had a shelf life of a month or so.”

Today’s observers may find it improbable, but in the 1980s some doubted there was a market for craft beer in Portland, Ore. “I have an article in a local magazine that featured Widmer, BridgePort and us,” Portland Brewing’s Bowman told the Smithsonian audience, “and at the bottom of the article there was a quote by someone that said, ‘There’s probably room for one such company here, but not three.’”

But those three breweries weren’t Portland’s first microbrewers, Bowman said, as he described the brief and apparently unhappy history of the Cartwright Brewing Company. “A fellow named Charles Coury started it,” Bowman continued, “and we wanted so badly to like this stuff. We were so enthusiastic about what he was doing — the idea of starting a small brewery in Portland,” Bowman remembered. “Unfortunately, by the time he got it in the bottle, it was pickle juice. It just wasn’t very good.”

While looking back at the history of craft brewing, the three presenters also looked around and looked ahead at the state of the industry today and its possible future.

“One of the wonderful things that the microbrewery movement has given us,” noted Barkley, “is now we can go to almost any city around any state and maybe derive a little bit of a sense of locality just by the beer that we’re able to experience.”

Bowman remembered talking with brewery president F. X. Matt II at a brewers’ conference in Portland. “I asked him how things were going, and he said, ‘Thanks to what you guys started, everything’s fine.’” Bowman added that this was “because they started producing Saranac, and they weren’t trying to compete with Budweiser anymore.”

The last word belonged to Fritz Maytag, who remembered a decades-ago dinner in a San Francisco restaurant. “Somebody asked me, ‘What are you up to?’ We were in this place that had a little wine list, and I said, ‘If I’m right, someday a place like this will have a beer list.’”

Gregg Wiggins works in public radio, contributes regularly to Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and has too many G’s in his name. He can be reached at greggwiggins@hotmail.com.


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