Words & Photos / James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts
It was 1974 and I was sitting in a bar in San Francisco. I was a sophomore in high school, but that didn’t matter in The City by the Bay. Back then, the Old Spaghetti Factory on Green Street in the North Beach district was pretty liberal and served an eclectic mix of hippies, old businessmen and neighborhood denizens that liked the historic bar as much as the hot plates of pasta and red Manhattan clam sauce that originally attracted me to the place.
I was a geeky loner in high school. I stuck to myself for the most part and found charm in the city across the bay from where I lived. I’d head over there multiple times a week. With a camera around my neck and a spiral bound notebook, I took pictures of everything and wrote down everything I saw in my growing stack of journals. I didn’t have a theme, I just wrote. I burned through Bic Sticks like cigarettes, just recording what I saw. I guess I liked to write.
I’d wander into the “Fac” every time I went to the city and enjoyed heaping plates of garlic soaked spaghetti and bread. Somehow I discovered Anchor Steam Beer and had a couple of mugs with dinner, then wandered to the bar for a mug of Anchor Porter for a nightcap. I had no idea what I was drinking, I just knew it tasted different than the mass produced insipid swill I’d been weaned on at countless high school keggers where the ubiquitous little red cup became my friend.
At 17 I became a barfly. It wasn’t long before I had my own spot at the bar. I wasn’t a lush, but I found a comfortable place where I was welcome and conversation was free. I wasn’t used to being accepted, but I felt at home there. The waiters, owners and barkeeps all treated me as a regular.
One server in particular, a guy named Rick Herron, took notice. One day he asked, “you really like that beer, don’t you?”
“I do,” I replied.
“Well, do you think you might want to meet the guy that makes it?”
Of course I did. He said: “introduce yourself to Fritz Matag, he makes Anchor Steam beer.”
I turned to my left to focus on a tall, taciturn man of stature. “Sir, I really like your beer.”
Maytag pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked down to me with a somewhat judgmental, but curious look.
“Really,” he asked. I was probably the youngest guy to ever comment on his beer.
“Yeah, there’s something about it that’s, well, different. It tastes good. It’s thicker, has, well, flavor. But really it’s just good.”
Maytag’s look softened. He was older than my father. I was about to get my first lesson in real beer.
Over the course of a couple beers, Maytag explained where the flavor came from. He had a vocabulary I wasn’t used to, but found fascinating. I learned how beer was made and how the various ingredients all combined to add a dimension of beer I never considered. Science, alchemy and love enveloped me.
Maytag invited me to visit Anchor Brewing Company the next time I was in the city. I didn’t waste any time. A couple days later, on a Saturday, with my camera around my neck and notebook in hand, I peeked around the corner into a old wooden, long, tall building to discover half a dozen longhairs with ponytails hand-bottling beer and placing them in cases. Maytag discovered me and invited me in. He explained that there were no other beers like his in the United States and that if I wanted something beyond what he was doing I would have to focus on imports.
He said: “Try every beer. Hold it up to the light. Look at it. Smell it. Taste it. Take notes. Decide if you like it, but don’t dislike it because it’s different. Just learn about it.”
“Take notes.” That’s what he said. I considered it. And, suddenly, my writing found a home.
In 1979, I blew into Anchorage on a dark, cold November day. I had my Colorado newlywed wife in tow by her little pinky. I’ll never forget wandering outside of the Anchorage International Airport at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was pitch black, 10 degrees and the snow was blowing sideways in a firm, bitter wind. We hailed a cab, settled into a seat that was more like an overused sofa and we headed into Anchorage’s badlands. The first thing we pulled up behind was a hunting vehicle with a bumper higher than the top of the cab, rolling along on airplane tires. The newest thing on the converted military vehicle was a bumper sticker that proclaimed “Alaska, where the weak don’t show and the cowards die.” I was home.
Days later, we picked up our Chevy Vega that came up on a barge and immediately got lost exploring Anchorage. I’ll never forget driving north on what is now the New Seward Highway and seeing the Prinz Brau Brewery. A jolt hit me—I was in a new beer frontier.
Fast forward to October of 1980. It was early in the month and I was working a full time job during the day and attending school at night. I called my wife one evening from a pay phone. She was jittery with excitement. “We have to go to this place to get Halloween costumes. There’s a costume sell-out on 15th and Cordova. The Alaska Conservatory Theater is closing up and the costumes are all for sale in this apartment building right there. There are rows and rows of them in the basement.” I didn’t want to go, I was tired, but I did. There, in the basement of the apartments that overlook Mulcahy Stadium, peddling costumes was Rick Herron, the guy who had introduced me to Fritz Maytag at the "Fac" back in San Francisco. After a series of letters between us, he’d decided to follow me to Alaska. We soon became faster friends. He eventually moved to a place off Tudor and introduced me to homebrewing. My fate was sealed.
The very first, original Dr. F. photo before Dr. F. was Dr. F. Taken at Miner’s and Trappers in the late ‘80s.
I moved on to become the president of Anchorage’s Great Northern Brewers Homebrew Club (GNBC) in 1992 and 1993. I was fascinated with all that beer was and I loved writing about it. My notebooks were now filled with beer notes. I meticulously tracked every beer I drank using Maytag’s suggestion: appearance, aroma, taste and overall impression. I had hundreds of pages of notes that came from every new beer that hit the Brown Jug Warehouse shelves.
Fast forward again. This time to the spring of 1997 when I got a weird phone call. Nick Coltman of the Anchorage Press asked me if I was interested in becoming their contributing beer columnist. The former beer writer, Jeff Byles, moved along, as did his successor, Mick McDaniel. It was McDaniel, a homebrewer, who recommended me. I gulped.
I wrote a lot but I wasn’t a writer. Not by a long shot. All I had to do, according to Coltman, was submit three pieces: two that I’d already written and something new. I figured, “what the heck. I’d submit. If I wasn’t worthy, so be it. If I was, I could just quit at any time.” I didn’t hear anything back. I knew just enough about writing to understand that bad writers didn’t get critiques, they got ignored. Three months passed by and, convinced that I sucked, I gave up waiting for a rejection letter or a call. Then, on the week before the Fourth of July, I got the call.
Coltman said: “Hey, I like your work. If you can commit to a Friday deadline each week you can be the beer columnist. In fact, the piece you wrote originally is nice and I’d like to run that next week.”
I gulped again. If I accepted, I had a commitment. If I didn’t, then I’d never know if I could’ve been a writer. So, I got to work.
At the time, I figured I’d try to make a year and if I didn’t get run off, I’d have a solid milestone. This past Fourth of July I passed 19 years of consecutive weekly columns. My 1,000th column was published on September 22, 2016. I guess I’m not a quitter. I can’t really attest to my writing.
I’ve poured a lot of Alaska craft beer down my throat over the years. During that time I’ve seen 41 breweries start and 11 close down. I don’t have an accurate count, but I know I’ve tried well over 1,000 locally produced beers. Does this make me a beer expert? Hardly. I’m just a beer drinker with a writing problem. I’m an aficionado with a certified palate and I can’t even call myself an avid homebrewer. I gave up the homebrewing sport nine years ago. It got to the point where I could either make beer and drink it, or drink it and write about it. Both are equally fun. But in the long run the most expensive ingredient in homebrew is time and I have precious little of that.
Alaska boasts 30 licensed brewing operations. I know of four more in the works. Our breweries are geographically dispersed with Silver Gulch Brewing Company in Fairbanks at the top and Baranof Island Brewing Company in Sitka at the bottom. Breweries don’t require big communities to be sustaining. Nenana’s Roughwoods Inn Café Brewery and Gakona Brewing Company are ample testimony that beer works wherever it’s brewed.
Breweries in Alaska quickly become community mainstays. Most don’t have global aspirations, they just want to serve their neighbors. Styles range from mainstream to eclectic and many of our breweries are world renown. More will come and more will go. The quality bar is high and only getting higher. Survival in brewing means being world class at a minimum or hugely distinctive in one way or another.
Alaskan Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter has won more awards than any other beer at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s 1,000th beer, “M,” commanded a record $1,540 on eBay when beer could be sold there. Anchorage Brewing Company beer is distributed internationally and there’s a long line of world-class breweries around the globe in line to brew in collaboration with this local gem.
Alaskan Brewing Company turned 30 in September. Midnight Sun Brewing Company is 20. 49th State Brewing Company is Alaska’s first brewpub with two operations in Alaska – Anchorage and Healy. Breweries are opening faster than I can capture them in print. Even after 19 years, I haven’t been to every one in the state yet. I’ll hit my 20-year milestone writing my brand of sudsy drivel for the Anchorage Press this Fourth of July. And as long as my liver doesn’t shit the bed, I hope I’m good for another 20 more.
James Roberts, aka Dr. Fermento, is the 20 year contributing columnist to the Anchorage Press where his weekly beer article “Brew Review” appears each week. Fermento also writes a bi-monthly beer column about Alaska called Aurora Beeralils for the national Celebrator Beer News and has been doing so for 15 years. Fermento’s long-standing writing objective has always been “to make people thirsty for good beer.”