Adventures in Beer Drinking: Anchor Steam Brewery

The six beers on tap at Anchor Brewery: their Summer, Steam, Liberty Ale, their Brown, Porter, and their Barleywine

Earlier this month, I ventured out again to the West to visit Squirrel, who surprised me with an Anchor Brewery tour. Even though the free tours happen twice each weekday, they often have to book several months in advance — during these summer months, they’re taking reservations for six months down the road. Thankfully, Squirrel has some amazing connections throughout San Francisco, including a friend of a friend who managed to get us and two of her friends on a tour.

As with most brewery tours, our guide led our group through the brewery explaining the processes and machines they use, but what made Anchor Brewery really different was the amount of history and random trivia thrown out at you. For instance…

Why is it called Steam Beer?

Every micro-brewery has that one beer that they’re known for; Bell’s has Two-Hearted, Dogfish has 60 Minute, Shiner has its Bock, and Anchor’s brew is Anchor Steam Beer. Steam beer is largely identified with the beers produced in the Bay Area around the end of the 19th century. Why it was called steam beer is not exactly known, but some point to the area breweries use of cool ships. Before ice and refrigeration were invented or readily available in the area, San Francisco breweries built massive cool ships (shallow vats with large diameters and therefore massive surface areas) on their roofs in order to cool the wort overnight. As the wort cooled in the night air, steam could likely be seen rising from the rooftops.

Now, Anchor Brewery has moved on from the roof top cool ships but still produces ‘steam beer'; in fact, they are the only ones that can legally use the term ‘steam beer’ as they have trademarked the term. They do attempt to use a process similar to the cool ships, just in a more sanitary way. They’ve moved the ships indoors into the ships’ own room.

History of Anchor Brewery

The current Anchor Brewery is based in a smallish building at the north foot of Potrero Hill, a short walk (or as her two friends proved, a very short drive in a Lotus) down the hill from Squirrel’s house and very close to several local restaurants and stores. Since rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake, the brewery has been located in this area and settled into their current building towards the end of the 1970s.

Put plain and simple, Anchor Brewery is a survivor. First, they were one of the few SF breweries to survive the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent fire. Then Prohibition came, and while no one is sure what they did during that Error Era, the brewery was able to get through it. As a result, it was one of the few breweries in the Bay Area.

After all that, the brewery survived a brutal double whammy by sheer chance (at least, if the legend is correct). Anchors problems were external and internal. In the middle of the 20th century, American beer drinkers began to drink lots and lots of crappy light/lite beer made by the big macro-breweries. This alone killed off an extremely large number of the micro-brewies in the U.S. market. Anchor’s only real hope was to keep their customers happy by reminding them why they drank Anchor Steam. Unfortunately, Anchor’s internal problems with cleanliness resulted in them producing inconsistent beer; sometimes, it was up to the old standards, but other times, kegs would go bad within a day.  Anchor Brewery seemed doomed…

…until its savior, Fritz Maytag (yes, he was part of the family behind Maytag Appliances), bought the brewery. The legend goes that Anchor only had less than $200 left on the books when Maytag sat down at bar one night, and a bartender, who knew who Maytag was and the money he had, poured him an Anchor Steam Beer. After Maytag asked what beer it was, the bartender told him the name and said Maytag better enjoy it because the brewery had run out of money and was shutting down. Maytag proceeded to modernize and sanitize the brewery while learning the ins-and-outs of brewing. As a result, Anchor Brewery not only survived but began to thrive. Fritz was the sole owner until he sold it in 2010. Under his ownership, demand for Anchor Brewery beers went from a few thousand cases to 90,000 barrels per year (yes, I was shocked that it’s only 90,000).

Thanks, E, for the tour and the pours!

The Pours

In the tasting room, we ran through the following beers:

  1.  Anchor Summer: wheat beer that has been filtered, so it’s clearer; it is not creamy, and I thought it was pretty good
  2. Steam Beer: solid
  3. Liberty Ale: my second favorite
  4. Brekle’s Brown: my favorite. This brown is made with citra hops and is a really, really good brown that they just started brewing
  5. Anchor Porter: very good porter with a hint of chocolate at the end. mmmmm, chocolate.
  6. Old Foghorn Barleywine: not on the sweeter end of barleywines, but still not going to convince me to drink barleywines.

All told, I had a freakin AWESOME time there. Eric, our tour guide, was fantastic, and the tour, which went throughout the brewery, was amazing. Definitely something that I would recommend to anyone who is willing to plan a trip to SF six months from now…

– shintern1909

PS: Thanks to: Squirrel for making this happen and the glassware, DL for taking all the photos and deciding that you should share your samples, and J for shooting the shit with me about beer and not taking all of DL’s samples!

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