Jay Brooks on Anchor Liberty Ale
Jay Brooks on Anchor Liberty Ale
As the mid-1970s approached, everyone in the United States was focused on the upcoming bicentennial. In my hometown, for example, kids were given blueprints and paint and sent out to repaint all of the town’s fire hydrants to resemble colonial soldiers. On July 4, 1976, I marched down the streets of Philadelphia with my high school marching band. For anyone alive during that time, the bicentennial was quite literally everywhere.
In San Francisco, Anchor Brewing owner Fritz Maytag also wanted to participate, but feared his efforts getting lost amongst the bicentennial noise. Or as Anchor’s historian Dave Burkhart remembered, “Fritz really wanted to do something for America’s bicentennial, but didn’t want to join everybody else.” So he instead planned something for the year before, something which, almost a half-century later, caused former brewmaster Mark Carpenter to quip, “It’s just typical of Fritz to think that way and think up something like that.”
What Fritz Maytag did was to create Liberty Ale to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s Ride. It’s easy to remember the day it was first brewed by recalling these famous lines:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year.
In case you weren’t paying attention in English class on the day it was taught, or live outside of the U.S., this is the beginning of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride, written in 1860 with the Civil War looming. Longfellow was both a pacifist and an abolitionist, and the poem was intended to evoke the young nation’s patriotic past in a way that might resonate with and ultimately unify both sides of the slavery debate. Although the poem is not historically accurate in many ways, it did establish Revere as a symbol of patriotism and the American Revolution.
So a simple recipe was written and, as per the poem, Liberty Ale was first brewed on April 18, 1975. It was, and is, brewed with pale malt and Cascade hops, making it, according to current brewmaster Tom Riley, one of the first SMASH beers — a term I had not heard before, but which denotes a beer brewed with a Single Malt And Single Hop. It was also the first to use Cascade hops, which of course went on to be a particular favorite of early craft breweries.
While Anchor never specifically used IPA on the label, it was arguably the first modern IPA, too. The inspiration for Liberty Ale were ales Maytag discovered while attending prep school in Massachusetts, notably Ballantine. Liberty is also dry-hopped and naturally carbonated using a bunging technique.
The initial brewing of Liberty Ale, known internally as LA1, was just a single batch from their then-57-barrel brewhouse, and because they had no dedicated ale fermenter at the time, tied up production of Steam Beer. As a result, the original roughly 500 cases that were bottled on June 26, 1975, were believed to be a “one-shot deal,” as Carpenter remembered. And he also added. “It must have been the hoppiest beer in America at the time.” Some people said they couldn’t even drink it, but it sold out quickly and was popular right from the start.
As Christmas approached that year, Maytag decided to brew it again for the holidays with a slightly adjusted recipe, and LA2 became the very first Anchor Christmas Ale in 1975. For the subsequent seven years, the Liberty recipe was tweaked a little bit each year so that LA3 through LA9 were each year’s seasonal beer that became known as “Our Special Ale.”
In 1983, a brown ale was used as the base beer for the Our Special Ale, and LA9 became the version of Liberty Ale that was added as a year-round bottled beer once an ale fermenter was installed in the brewery on Potrero Hill the following year. Tom Riley recalls drinking his first:
“The first time I had a Liberty, it was too overwhelming for me, kind of like my first experience with blue cheese. But then you start to realize there’s only one place you can get that flavor sensation and it starts to grow on you and you move forward with that. Your frame of reference moves, and then you start craving it. Liberty is definitely my second favorite beer that we make, and has been for a long time. The first Liberty Ale is just incredibly good. It’s a lot like a champagne, with effervescence and perceived acidity.”
In the brewing world, the midnight ride of Liberty Ale was what in effect kicked off the trend of IPAs and hop-forward beers, even if by today’s standards it seems more like a well-balanced pale ale. For many of today’s older brewers, it’s the beer that introduced them to well-hopped beer and got them interested in taking it farther, giving them the liberty to free the hops.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.