Daniel Port hasn't gotten over the 49ers' loss in the Super Bowl. Port works for San Francisco-based Anchor Brewers and Distillers, makers of Anchor Steam and other craft potables. Anchor's brewmaster lost a bet to his counterpart at Frederick's Flying Dog Brewery, so staffers had to sport Ravens gear during brewery tours for a week. "I got stuck in a Ray Lewis jersey," Port growls. His bitterness lingers like a hoppy finish.
Port has the consolation of working for a remarkable enterprise. Anchor's history dates to 19th-century San Francisco, where in the absence of ice or refrigeration, brewers cooled fermenting beer on rooftops. Rising steam, the story goes, gave the region's beers their nickname. Despite a local following, Anchor's fortunes suffered through the 1906 earthquake, Prohibition, and the ascent of nationally distributed "big beer" after World War II.
Facing bankruptcy in 1965, the brewery was resurrected by Fritz Maytag, scion of the appliance family. (His father created Maytag Blue cheese.) An entrepreneur with a keen appreciation for history, Maytag refashioned Anchor Steam as a microbrew, launching America's craft-beer renaissance. Anchor subsequently introduced other beverages, including barley wine, annual Christmas ales, and a beer based on an ancient Sumerian recipe.
In 1993, Maytag's restless experimentation led to distilling. Anchor began producing Old Potrero rye in a small corner of the brewery, where the pioneering micro-distillery remains today. "Fritz loved the idea that rye was America's original whiskey," recalls Bruce Joseph, a 33-year Anchor employee and current head distiller. "We also didn't want to do what other people were doing. No one gave a darn about rye or traditional distilling then. We made the only pot-distilled whiskey in the U.S."
Old Potrero isn't sold in Maryland, but we can drown our sorrows with Anchor's Junipero Gin (98.6 proof, $35). Its name alludes to both gin's primary botanical and California's founding missionary, Junipero Serra. Junipero debuted in 1996, when "most distillers were making lighter gins to compete with vodka," says Joseph. "We wanted a gin that appealed to gin drinkers. Again, Fritz got there before anyone." With a yellow tint and rain-freshened pine-forest pungency, Junipero delivers full-bodied flavors of juniper, citrus, and coriander, marked by a sappy finish.
Maytag retired in 2010, but historically minded innovation continues. A product released last fall fits neatly in the lineup, flavored with an ingredient tied to Anchor's brewing roots. It's called Hophead Vodka.