There is no doubt that Prohibition, the 1920 law that banned the sale of alcohol in the United States, crippled American brewing culture for much, even most of the Twentieth Century. Although the law was repealed in 1933, it would be nearly 75 years before American breweries even approached the robust presence they enjoyed prior to the Prohibition Movement. Few craft breweries in the United States today can boast a heritage that predates Prohibition; Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, however, is one of them.
Anchor’s history can be traced back as far as 1871, when Gottlieb Brekle bought a pub in San Francisco, and turned it into a brewery. Although Brekle began brewing beer on the premises, it wasn’t until 1896, when the German brewmaster Ernst F. Baruth bought the brewery, that he gave it the name Anchor, and Anchor Brewing was officially born. It’s unknown why Baruth, along with his son-in-law Otto Schinkel Jr., decided on the name Anchor, but regardless of the name’s origin: it’s proved long-lasting.
Anchor flourished in the years that followed, opening five additional breweries in San Francisco. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Anchor’s business was booming—but trouble was on the horizon. Within one year, Baruth died unexpectedly, Schinkel was run over by a street car, and Anchor’s original brewery was consumed in the firestorm that followed the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Anchor was taken over by another local German brewer, Joseph Kraus, but faced strong opposition as the Prohibition Movement gained momentum, ultimately closing its doors in 1920 when teetotaling became law.
In 1933, upon Prohibition’s repeal with the 21st Amendment, Klaus started brewing again, and enjoyed success for nearly two decades, up until his death in 1952. Through the 1950’s, however, American tastes began to be swayed by mass-marketed macro-beers, light, often corn-based yellow fizz that—for all its remarkable, even praiseworthy consistency—lacked the complex flavor profile of Anchor Steam’s traditional, pre-prohibition style. As a result of this change in American tastes, the brewery faltered, changing hands multiple times, and nearly closing its doors in both 1959, and 1965.
It was in 1965 that Fritz Maytag, a recent Stanford graduate, learned that Anchor, brewer of his favorite beer, was in dire straits. For only a few thousand dollars, Maytag purchased a majority share in Anchor, saved the historic brewery from bankruptcy, and beginning what Anchor refers to today as its “Brewing Renaissance.” In the next ten years, Anchor would make great strides, bottling—for the first time since the pre-prohibition era—its flagship Anchor Steam, and beginning also to brew new styles, such as their Anchor Porter, seasonal Christmas Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine, and their influential Liberty Ale, arguably the first American IPA. In 1975, Anchor was, essentially, a craft, microbrewery—before anyone had ever used those terms.
But Maytag wasn’t finished yet. He continued expanding Anchor, both in terms of its variety of beers, and in its scope of production. In 1984, for example, he first rolled out Anchor Summer Beer, which was the first wheat beer brewed in the United States since prior to Prohibition, which is to say, in more than half a century. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010, in the 45 years since he took control of the company, Anchor had gone from a brewery fighting for its life, to one of the pillars of the American craft beer scene, both a fantastic brewery in its own right, and perhaps the most historic brewer of craft beers in the United States.
The beer known as Anchor Steam is as old as the name Anchor Brewing, first fermented more than a century ago in 1896. Although the first year of Anchor Steam is clearly documented, the origin of the beer’s name is more murky. In the 19th Century, “steam” was a nickname used for any beer brewed out west, using primitive methods. Supposedly, “steam” was used to describe how brewers—without access to ice—would leave their brew kettles up on the roof at night. The fog, for which San Francisco is famous, would roll in off the bay, and naturally cool the kettle, which would in turn give off steam. That story might be apocryphal, but the Anchor Steam beer is tried, true, and here to stay.
Anchor Steam’s constituent parts are pretty straightforward: there are two malts, two-row pale and caramel, and one hop, northern brewer. It pours a light copper, with a strong head retention. Although there’s a very slight hop bite in the finish, this beer is primarily malt-driven. It has a bready quality, somewhat reminiscent of a pilsner, but with a more robust body than a Staropramen or a Radeberger. And at 4.9% alcohol, it’s still a sessionable brew, even with its deeper body.
Liberty Ale is arguably the first ever American IPA, and the first West Coast IPA. Although it’s not quite the palate-wrecking hop bomb that its successors have established, when it was introduced in 1975, Liberty Ale was a hop-forward beverage ahead of its time. Again, the recipe is simple: two-row pale malt, and cascade hops are the only ingredients besides water. The key for this beer is dry-hopping, which extracts the alpha acids from the hop leaves less aggressively than hopping in the boil, allowing for the subtler aromatics—pine, citrus, even wildflower—to come through in the nose. At 5.9% alcohol, it’s not quite the all-day brew its predecessor was, but if you’re looking for an historic American IPA, look no further than Liberty.
When you think Porter, you probably don’t think “easy-drinking.” Anchor Porter, however, is just that. A blend of two row pale, caramel, black and chocolate malts, this beer’s malt profile overwhelms the northern brewer hops—but does so without creating a syrupy, cloying beer. Rather, Anchor Porter is surprisingly drinkable for such a dark, malt-forward beer. When Anchor first brewed their Porter, back in 1972, it was the first of its style to be produced in the United States. An historical standard bearer, Anchor Porter lives up to the hype more than four decades after its inception.
The Last Word
Everyone wants, even needs an origin story—not just for ourselves, but for our vocations. Some breweries have their beginnings on intrepid treks across a mountain range; others cite frustration with local offerings, and a concurrent confidence that they could brew better, as their impetus for starting to brew. But no matter the brilliance of concept a new brewery may have—and their are many brilliant new breweries—there is no substitute for history. In American brewing, few, if any breweries can boast the story you’ll find at Anchor. The first porter, wheat beer, and West Coast IPA since Prohibition was repealed: you only need one brewery if you want to try all three, and that brewery is Anchor of San Francisco.