If I had a dollar for every time one of us lamented we weren’t able to keep the brewery going or keep the Healdsburg ranch until the grape boom, I would be a rich man. We could have joined Fritz Maytag with his rejuvenation of the Anchor Steam Brewery. In the 1970’s the Baby Boomers were demanding quality beers, home brewing was very popular and import beer was the rage. Looking back on Becks and Heineken, they weren’t such good beers-but they were different and they were the rage. Remember now, these beers had already traveled 60 days on a ship to get to America and then they were shipped across country. So, fresh they were not. Skunky, stale and flat. Hey! Paul Newman drinks Heineken, it must be good. There was a tremendous demand brewing for something other than the bland product the big brewers were putting out. Younger people were looking back to the past for craftsmanship in many areas so it was a natural for this movement to capture the imagination of home-brewers and entrepreneurial sorts. The Congress passed a law allowing the sale of beer on site and brewpubs began jumping up all over the nation. By the mid 1980’s the micro-brewing revolution was roaring. Fritz bought Anchor in 1965 but it took him a few years to get the process down and quality up. But he did get quality and of course he had good old GB yeast to get things started. As I stated above, Fritz told me I was crazy to think about getting in the beer business…but he said it with a slightly whimsical look. A sentiment, I might add, that was shared by many in my family-including Aunt Virginia. Fritz created what is widely acknowledged as one of the best beers on the market. It took him many years to make a profit but he made it. A real pioneer and one of the really nice guys in the business.
All this revolution needed was a few wild-eyed dreamers and John and I visited the first of these dreamers-Jack McAuliffe with his New Albion Brewery in Sonoma. It opened to the public in 1977 and we visited him about a year before it went under-1981 or so. He was a gruff no-nonsense guy who built his own equipment and had no sympathy for anyone who could not do the same. The beer was good but was bottle conditioned, which required more delicate handling by retail outfits, and he insisted on returnable bottles-which was a nightmare and he probably suffered from some consistency problems. But Jack started the craze (one of the owners of Sierra Nevada is rumored to have been an apprentice there) and hundreds of small brewers followed. Some thrived, most dived but rest assured that folks looking for better variety and more traditional beers loved the quality of beer that was being produced.
Would Tom have wanted us to get back into the business? Well that is a good question but I believe he did all he could to convince us to go to college and pursue other interests. For my part, the reason I did not, after spending the better part of two years pursuing it, was that I could not figure out how to make it profitable. Pretty elementary. Write a business plan after very extensive research and then make the educated decision. My accountant said, “ Go ahead with this idea but you will lose everything you have and all the money you raised from your friends in this town.” I had figured out how to get the equipment and had taken a brewing class at UC Davis and had a good idea of the whole process…but I could not get past the fact that I could not make my business plan forecast a profitable business. I did love being at the epicenter of the micro-brewing wave and I am a so glad folks like Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada prospered. And if it was possible ….
By the way Ken Grossman told me when I visited him in Chico in 1985 that he did have one advantage being in Chico-an endless supply of cheap labor and a ready market for his beer. He couldn’t have made through the first year without those kids. Still there beats in the hearts of a couple of generations of Grace Boys a thirst for a brewery. So I guess we are damned to just drinking it. Not so bad.
Michael H Grace July 2010