By Rick Riozza
So I immediately call some of my beer columnist friends: “Did you hear the news?” On my very first call, there was a pronounced silence on the other end. As you can tell, we’re older folks and do not text about these things—indeed, we don’t text!
Anyway—yeah, she had heard the news and told me without missing a beat that she was boycotting all beer in general. And that’s quite a stand to take when one makes their living on writing beer columns. (Well—she’s giving it up for a little while.) But I get it. For us West Coast beer enthusiasts (that’s right—I personally never gave up my suds card just because I became a wine columnist), we’re in mourning over the closing of the Anchor Steam Beer Brewery & Company. We’re all crying in our beer—unfortunately it’s not Anchor Steam.
For us wine & beer enthusiasts who were up and about with all the wonderful beverages coming out of Napa/Sonoma and the Bay Area in the 1970s, Anchor Steam Beer was always showing up at our college parties. It had the flavor of European beer and the crisp freshness of the West Coast! What great memories! And now our homage:
Anchor Steam: The Beer That Started It All—America’s first Craft Brewery. Anchor Brewing Company’s roots date back to the California Gold Rush. A true San Francisco icon, Steam Beer® was America’s original craft beer, named for the 19th century practice of fermenting beer outdoors due to the lack of refrigeration. As legend has it, the chilly San Francisco night air naturally cooled the fermenting beer, creating the visual of steam rising from the brewery rooftop. Their claim to fame recently, was, “CRISPNESS OF A LAGER. COMPLEXITY OF AN ALE.”
1849: Anchor Brewing has roots that date back to the Gold Rush, when pioneer brewer Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco from Germany.
1871: Gottlieb Brekle bought an old beer-and-billiards saloon on Pacific Street near Russian Hill for $3,500, transforming it into the American brewery that, twenty-five years later, would be renamed Anchor.
1896: A new German brewer bought the old brewery on Pacific and named it Anchor. No one knows why they chose the name Anchor, except, perhaps, its indirect but powerful allusion to the booming Port of San Francisco.
1906: In an uncanny year of misfortune, co-owner Ernst Baruth died suddenly in February. Two months later, the devastating fire following San Francisco’s great earthquake consumed Anchor Brewery. In January 1907, just as Anchor Brewery was opening at its new location south of Market Street, the owner was run over by a streetcar. Fortunately, a couple of German brewers along with a liquor store owner were able to keep Anchor going.
1920: Prohibition effectively shut Anchor down in 1920.
1933: After Prohibition ended in April 1933, brewing began at Anchor Steam® Beer after a thirteen-year hiatus. As luck would have it, the Brewery went up in smoke the following February. Anchor re-opened in an old brick building with a new partner, Joe Allen, just a few blocks from where the historic Brewery is today.
1959: In the era of mass production: American tastes had changed, with mass-produced, lighter beers driving consumer demand. This took a toll on Anchor’s sales and the brewery was shut down, thankfully, for only a brief period.
1960: Lawrence Steese bought and re-opened Anchor at yet another nearby location, and hiring Joe Allen to carry Anchor’s craft brewing tradition forward. But one of Anchor’s oldest accounts, the Crystal Palace Market had already closed its doors. And the brewery had difficult time convincing loyal Bay Area establishments to continue serving Anchor Steam. By 1965, Anchor was ready to shut down again.
1965: During a meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a young Stanford grad named Fritz Maytag learned that the makers of his favorite beer Anchor Steam® Beer were soon to close their doors forever. Despite the primitive equipment and financial condition, Fritz rushed to buy 51% of the historic San Francisco craft brewery —rescuing Anchor from imminent bankruptcy.
1971-1975: Fritz began bottling Anchor Steam® Beer – the first bottled Anchor Steam® in modern times. By 1975, Anchor had produced four other distinctive beers, Anchor Porter®, Liberty® Ale, Old Foghorn® Barleywine Ale, and the first annual Christmas Ale. Though the terms “microbrewing” and “craft brewing” had yet to be coined, it was clear that Anchor was leading a brewing revolution in San Francisco.
In 2017, the company was acquired by Sapporo’s Brewery. Working conditions and pay at Anchor had been in a state of decline since Maytag had sold the company, and this trend continued under Sapporo’s ownership despite the company’s larger holdings. This led to further dissatisfaction among the brewery’s workers.
In 2018, several workers at Anchor, formed an organizing committee and coordinated in San Francisco to develop a plan for unionization and were overwhelmingly supported by local bars which served Anchor Steam Beer in the city.
In 2023, union efforts to renew the existing contract were stalled, with Sapporo delaying negotiations. On July 12, 2023, Sapporo announced it was ceasing operations at Anchor and liquidating the business. Sapporo blamed the closure on decreased sales at restaurants and bars caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, competition from other local brewers, and a shift in consumer preferences to alcoholic beverages other than beer. The announcement led to significant outrage from brewery workers, San Francisco bartenders, and locals, with passing drivers chanting “keep brewing” outside the building.
Unfortunately, craft brewers, in particular, have been struggling for a variety of reasons including changing consumer habits, rising costs and lingering supply-chain challenges. sales are down nearly 4% year to date and volume is down more than 7%, showing that “craft has had a tough start to 2023”.
Residents of the city of San Francisco, however are asking for Sapporo to sell the company to them in share ownership. Raise a glass of cold beer! Cheers!