Craft Beer History for California beer tourism



One reason California wine country is doing such a good job with craft beer is that it has been at it longer than most. California craft brewers have logged a number of firsts or otherwise significant brewing accomplishments.

Back in the mid 1960s, Fritz Maytag took over a struggling old San Francisco brewery called Anchor Brewing Company and by the early 1970s reestablished it as a high quality craft beer producer. Today, this action is widely recognized as the creating the first modern commercial craft brewery in America.

Maytag went about producing flavorful beers that had heritage and contrasted markedly with the predominant bland American lagers of the day. His original beer, Anchor Steam, is dark amber in color and richly malty in taste. It carries on a unique tradition of California brewing that was nearly lost.

Anchor Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was among the first modern US commercial beers to utilize dry hopping specifically to give a strong dose of hop aroma and flavor to the finished ale. This technique is widely used today in American craft brewed pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs.

New Albion inspires other brewers

In the mid-1970s, a Navy veteran and professional engineer named Jack McAuliffe founded the first new microbrewery in the United States at the wine country town of Sonoma. Called New Albion Brewery, its brews were flavorful and sometimes experimental. Its brewers pioneered what we might today call America’s artisan style. While it only lasted until late 1982, New Albion's creativity inspired a generation of prospective California craft brewers.

Further upstate in Chico, homebrewing supply shop owner Ken Grossman was inspired by New Albion. In 1979 he founded Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, purchasing some used brewing equipment that others had outgrown. Homebrewer-turned-pro-brewer Grossman pushed the limits in 1980 with his breakthrough Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—a beer that, likely more than any other, has schooled the nation on the new California style.

Then in 1983 at Hopland, Mendocino Brewing Company opened California's first (and the nation's second) brewpub since Prohibition. Picking up the torch from New Albion (as well as its brewing equipment and brewer Don Barkley), they developed their signature Red Tail Ale, which still carries on the original taste of California's craft beer revolution.

The rest is history.

It all began in San Francisco

Above: The current line up of Anchor beers continues the success of this landmark craft brewery.

Right: The Anchor Brewing facility in San Francisco has a great tour and tasting - but you must reserve your place in advance.

Wine makers create interest in taste

The success of the premium California wine industry since 1980 probably has a lot to do with why this region has so many excellent craft brewers today. Winemaking art and science has advanced to the point that today, literally scores of wineries are making beautiful, world-class wines. The taste profile encyclopedia has expanded exponentially and wonderful things are happening with virtually every popular grape variety.

This creative climate set by the better wineries inspires other artisans, in both food and beverage, to attain greater heights. To be respected in such a region, a brewer has to advance his or her art to the same degree. Average is not good enough. As consumers learn to appreciate the more complex, layered tastes, they demand more of it in everything they eat and drink. A culture develops that has a life of its own. A new market evolves and flourishes.

It is also true that California winemakers are some of California craft beer's greatest fans. As the old saying goes, it takes a lot of beer to make great wine.

Historic Brews from
Craft Beer Pioneers

Anchor Brewing

   Steam Beer, Liberty Ale

Sierra Nevada Brewing

   Pale Ale

Mendocino Brewing

   Red Tail Ale

Before your next visit to wine country, consider trying each of the historic beers above. They serve as reference points to pretty much all that has followed. They were beers that helped give rise to America's craft brewing industry.

See our New Albion Brewery article to learn more.