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Take a long, serious draught of sweet Liberty

Michael Jackson's beer of the month is one of America's greatest brews, now available in Britain

There is one beer whose name alone makes it uniquely appropriate for 4 July, and that is Liberty Ale - brewed in San Francisco and now available in Britain.

This is one of the greatest brews of the US, and is widely recognised as such among serious beer-lovers there. It is produced by the Anchor Brewery, and was first made in 1975 to commemorate Paul Revere's ride of 1775. (He rode from Boston to Lexington to warn the revolutionaries that the British were coming to arrest them. The ride signaled the start of the War of Independence).

When Anchor's owner, Fritz Maytag, created Liberty, he wanted to make a robustly American interpretation of ale - a style that is most widely brewed in Britain. He had previously made a pilgrimage to great British breweries such as Young's of London, Marston's of Burton-on-Trent and Timothy Taylor's of Keighley, Yorkshire, and still cherishes the recollection of those visits.

Liberty is paler than most British ales, with a straw-like colour and a firm, crisp, biscuity, appetite-arousing, malt character. A few years ago I traveled with the entire staff of the brewery on their annual bus trip to the barley harvest, on the borders of California and Oregon, and saw Mr. Maytag inspect and approve the crop. The barley is steeped, germinated and kilned into malt in Vancouver, Washington, in the watershed of the Cascade Mountains.


The hop character of Liberty is even more assertive, and is for many admirers the signature of the beer.


The hop character of Liberty is even more assertive, and is for many admirers the signature of the beer. Liberty has a huge, flowery, piney, faintly citrus hop bouquet. This derives from a hefty seasoning with the Cascade vanety of hops. This variety, America' s traditional "aroma hop," is grown in the Yakima Valley, as Cascade country (Twin Peaks territory, too).

Anchor is one of those breweries that uses hops in their natural form, as flowers, rather than as pellets or as extract. As is usual, the main dose of hops is boiled with the "juices" of the barley in the brew-kettle (at Anchor, traditional copper rather than stainless steel), but the final flourish comes later: a further seasoning of Cascade hops is added when the beer is cellared for maturation. These are especially influential in the bouquet. The practice of adding hops at this stage is often regarded as being peculiarly British. It is known as "dry-hopping".

A British-style ale yeast (rather than a lager strain) is used, and the beer has several weeks' maturation at natural cellar temperatures. This "warm conditioning" (as opposed to cold lagering) is also reminiscent of the procedure applied to some classic British ales. It develops a greater fruitiness and complexity in the beer.

Liberty Ale is quite strong, at 6.0 per cent. With its aromatic dryness and intensity of flavours, it makes a wonderful aperitif, especially before a barbecued steak at an Independence Day cookout. It is my beer of the day for today - and, for good measure, for the month.

As a simple summer refresher, I might prefer the brewery's Anchor Wheat Beer. This is made with 70 per cent wheat malt and only 30 per cent of the more usual barley. Like most such wheat beers, it has a distinctively quenching tartness, though it is on the light side for the style, in both palate and body.


Many beer-lovers associate the brewery only with its flagship product, Anchor Steam Beer.


Many beer-lovers associate the brewery only with its flagship product, Anchor Steam Beer. This is in a distinct style, something of a hybrid between ale and lager. It is very spritzy, with a firm, sweetish, malt character balancing a robust hop bitterness. The sobriquet "Steam" is supposed to derive from its liveliness, but I have doubts about that. The brewery was founded in the steam age, when the term had novelty value. Whatever the origins of its description, Anchor Steam is an outstandingly moreish beer for a sociable evening.

The brewery also has the dark, rich, spicy, Anchor Porter, which I would be inclined to save for the dessert course: pecan pie, I hope.

All of these brews, and the Christmas beer, are available in Britain. It seems churlish to complain that the soothing, warming, strong (8.75) Old Foghorn Barley Wine is not, but I would like it as a bedtime beer.

To many beer-lovers, the Anchor Brewery is a sacred place. It was founded in 1896 during the California Gold Rush and by 1965 seemed to have run out of steam. News of its intended closure was passed on to Mr. Maytag when he ordered a glass of Anchor Steam in his favourite hang-out in San Francisco. He was at university in California at the time, studying Japanese literature, and had no intention of becoming a brewer.

But he went to the brewery to see if he could help, and eventually found himself owning the place.

The brewery was under the arches of a motorway when I first encountered it. The equipment was ancient, and at one stage the beer had been made with baker's yeast. Mr. Maytag worked for 10 years to make Anchor viable, then moved it into a handsome Thirties building, a former coffee-roasting warehouse, in what has since become a fashionable neighbourhood of kitchenware stores, art galleries and fashion shops.

Today the Anchor Brewery is a gleaming jewel, attracting admirers from all over the world. Mr. Maytag, once seen in the business as a rich near-hippie, has become a revered brewer - with a disconcerting resemblance to President George Bush. When he is not brewing, he grows Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at his home at York Creek, on Spring Mountain in the Napa Valley.

His Anchor Liberty Ale appears on draught in Britain today for the first time at the White Horse pub, Parson's Green, Fulham, London. This pub, too, has become something of a sacred place to beer-lovers. I know of no pub that challenges it in the offering of interesting and well-chosen beers, but I wish a few would.


Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: JULY 4, 1992
In: The Independent

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