On a steep hill in San Francisco, with a beautiful view of the bay behind it, stands the city’s most historic brewery. Bubbling away in massive copper kettles, tended by men in coveralls, bestowed with bushy beards, lies one of America’s original craft beers. This is Anchor Brewing Company.
When people the world over rushed to California for its gold in the 19th century, with them came bakers, builders and even brewers. In 1896 a German brewer Ernst Baruth and his son-in-law Otto Schinkel, Jr. bought an old former saloon that Gottlieb Brekle turned into a small brewery and transformed it into Anchor Brewing. In the 24 years before Prohibition, Anchor established itself as creator of Anchor Steam Beer, a hoppy pale ale.
After Prohibition’s repeal, several owners, a few fires, and some tough and trying times, Anchor steamed back onto the beer scene in 1965 when Fritz Maytag (of that Maytag family), swooped in to save the floundering brewery. By the mid 1970’s Fritz had introduced a Porter, Barleywine, and a hoppy Pale Ale, all the first of their kind post-Prohibition. This was a ground-breaking place that was a “craft brewery,” long before that term even existed.
Their Liberty Ale, which I wrote about as part of my Election Night drinking experience, is a trailblazer of the now incredibly popular hop forward ales we see brewers big and small churning out hundreds or thousands of barrels at a time. The Dry-Hopped Steam Beer and Go West! IPA also carry the hoppy characteristics that everyone loves to drink. But this isn’t a brewery that just makes IPAs, and if you’ve never had one of their darker beers, you’re missing out.
When I was in San Francisco for a short vacation this week, I was able to swing by the Anchor brewery for a tour and tasting. The big concrete building juts outs of the surrounding houses in the midst of a very hilly portion of the city. Walking up a winding staircase you’re welcomed into the main public floor of the brewery with old wood and glass walls that shuttle you past a small gift shop and some offices into the brewery’s taproom. Lining the walls of the bar are display cases full of historic trinkets, collectibles and bottles from Anchor’s history. The brewery’s famous Christmas beer has a unique, artist designed label every year. As you look through a few of the display cases you can find the beer from the year you were born in, as long as that is 1975 or later.
Included among the collection of bottles is a Steam Beer with an upside down label. This comes from a batch of their flagship beer that was being brewed during the October 17, 1989 earthquake. With power out for a few hours the beer just wasn’t the same as a typical batch, but owner Fritz Maytag had an idea, release it with an upside down label, and see what happens. Instead of complaining, people heard about the “Earthquake Beer” and started snatching up six-packs of the upside down labeled bottles. Today it is a hard sought after collector’s item.
On one of the long walls in Anchor’s taproom, through panes of glass you can see three large copper tanks. This is where all of Anchor’s beers are born. You don’t see a lot of these large copper tanks anymore, but Anchor still uses them. After the beers are done with the three tanks, they get pumped over to an open fermenting room where the yeasts are allowed to ferment and sometimes hops are added. Across from one of these sealed rooms was the hop storage room. This small space was packed with big bags of whole hops spilling out of them. After getting permission from the brewers giving us the tour I grabbed a few out of one bag, rolled and crushed them in my hands and then breathed in the citrusy aroma. It was amazing.
On another floor you’ll find the maze of storage tanks where the beers finish their time at the brewery before being bottled or pumped into kegs for distribution. It’s an amazing process involving nearly 200 people from start to finish.
After the tour we had a tasting with 11 beers they had on tap at their bar. I was able to have some of the beers that are harder to get in Texas, like the aforementioned Christmas Ale and the Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. These are beers made by Anchor that, along with their fantastic Porter, are not to be overlooked.
The Christmas Ale hits all the right notes that a holiday beer must. It has seasonal spices (but not too much), the dark malty base, and is smooth and satisfying. Unlike many Christmas beers, Anchor’s has a light aroma of fruitcake, not the hard brick with the mysteriously neon colored additions mind you, but real, tasty, made like it used to be fruitcake. You also get some of the molasses common in these beers and a hint of fresh cut wood. Perfectly seasonal. It’s not quite as easy to get as other Christmas beers you may see in your grocery store, but in November when it starts to hit the shelves again, see if you can grab some of Anchor’s Christmas Ale. It’s worth every sip.
Then I was able to have Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. As Anchor says, it “is to beer much as port is to wine.” When I was poured a taster of this on the bar it immediately demanded my attention. Its a dark copper color, champagne-like bubbles, and Victorian England roots, make this a beer that begs to be enjoyed all on its own. This is a dessert beer, something sturdy and potent that you have at the end of a nice, meaty meal. It takes three times as much malt to make this than the typical beer and it has an extended aging process in the tanks at Anchor that produces a rich, hearty beer that will leave a lasting impression on you and your palate. This is a beer you have to track down. Even if you have to find it in a bar, only on tap, or maybe have to drive to a neighboring state, you’ve gotta try some Old Foghorn Ale.
I could have spent an entire day at Anchor, but I unfortunately had to catch a plane back to Texas. I did learn a key lesson as I left the brewery: when you’re going to a beer tasting in San Francisco park downhill. The eight block uphill walk to our parking spot afterward was exercise I’m not used to after drinking a lot of beer. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. That being said, my trip to Anchor was well worth it.
Next time you’re in San Francisco, before you head out to wine country or drive into Silicon Valley, set aside a few hours to take a tour of Anchor Brewing. No matter what else you do in The City by the Bay, exploring the history and tastes of one of America’s original craft breweries is an experience not to be missed.