SF's own Anchor Brewing Company has a worldwide reputation as the locus of the current craft beer movement, but many fans of Anchor's brews may not know that founder Fritz Maytag was also a trendsetter in craft distilling. Since 1993, a micro-distillery located on the Mariposa Street brewery's ground floor has put out a small, well-curated selection of handmade hooch. The distillers started with gin, producing Genevieve, a gin based on Dutch genever, and Junipero, a more classic London dry gin, then expanded into whiskey with the Old Potrero series, featuring an 18th-century style rye whiskey, a single-malt rye whiskey, and Hotaling's whiskey, a single-malt rye aged for 11 years in charred oak barrels. The latter bottles are a particularly tough trio to find, thanks to high demand and limited production.
After Maytag sold his company to the Griffin Group's Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor, who had previously acquired Preiss Imports and Berry Bros. & Rudd, Anchor's beers and spirits became absorbed into a 300+ spirit portfolio encompassing nearly every type of distillate, from single-malt Scotch to Calvados to liqueurs. But when new president David King came to Anchor Distilling in 2011, the first thing he noticed about his new office was the bewitching smell of hops that permeated Anchor headquarters, a side effect of the beer-brewing process.
For those who aren't familiar with how beer is made, hops are the buds of a climbing vine that are used in beer as a bittering agent and a preservative. Since wort (the yet-to-be-fermented liquid created by steeping malted barley) is essentially a grain-based sugar water, hops are responsible for adding depth and complexity to a beer's flavor. Some styles of beer, like IPAs, use a wide variety and/or large quantity of hops, while other styles, like stouts, tend to use smaller amounts or less aggressive varieties. Hops are a biological cousin of marijuana, and though they lack any psychoactive properties, they have a similarly heady scent that can express itself as pine, grapefruit, or floral, depending on the variety used.
With a sizable hop room upstairs at the brewery and a distillery cranking away below, King had the idea to bring together the two for Anchor Distilling's newest creation, Hophead Vodka. (Though it was a slang term for a heroin addict at the turn of the last century, "hophead" is more often used these days to describe a fan of IPAs or other beers with aggressive hop character.) After testing a variety of hops used in the brewery, head brewer Mark Carpenter and head distiller Bruce Joseph settled on two varieties of hops, creating a fresh, aromatic vodka that captures their unique scent and flavor.
The mixology team at Anchor has come up with numerous recipes, including a "West Coast Vesper" that combines the Hophead with Junipero gin, and a "San Fran Shandy" that incorporates the vodka with ginger liqueur, lemon juice, honey syrup, and a bit of Anchor's own Brekle's Brown Ale. The slightly herbal, vegetal quality of the hops also make it a great addition to a Bloody Mary.
Released this week, Hophead is available in both SF and New York City, and will soon expand to other markets. At $29.95 for a 750-ml bottle, it's one of the more affordable tipples in the Anchor portfolio, and would make a great holiday gift for a beer nerd who dabbles in spirits.