In the last couple decades craft brewing has become big business, with craft brewers popping up throughout the country. With all those new brew houses it’d be easy to ignore the brewers who delivered on the promise of deliciously crafted beer even while the country was enraptured by mass produced brew. Anchor Brewing, a San Francisco craft brewer dating to the Gold Rush, is one such beer maker.
Anchor Brewing was established by Gottlieb Breckle in the mid 1800s to serve the thirsty northern Europeans flooding California seeking their fortunes in the gold rush. By 1896, the brewery was purchased by Ernst F. Baruth and Otto Schinkel Jr. and given the Anchor name. But despite the new moniker, the brewery stuck with the approach it was known for – steam beer.
Steam beer is unique to the era – a result of a lack of refrigeration and the San Francisco climate. With little infrastructure available in California, ice houses were few and far between. The cool San Francisco weather allowed the brewers to reach back into the old world to use classic techniques, creating a heavily carbonated beer sans refrigeration. According to Mark Carpenter, the Anchor Brewing brewmaster, it “looked like you were pouring a keg of steam.” So steam ale stuck as the name for the beer and Anchor Steam is the flagship beer from the brewery to this day.
Interestingly, Anchor stayed the course through the years, delivering beers that were just a little off-kilter and different from the norm. That approach even continued through the San Francisco fire that burned down the brewery, not to mention a good chunk of the city, and even after shutting down during the dark days of prohibition. Though Carpenter says he has his own suspicions, offering his opinion that “our little brewery must’ve been doing something to survive during prohibition.”
The brewery hit hard times in the early ‘60s though. The rise of mass produced cans of watery brew hurt many small brewers in these times, and Anchor shuttered briefly until it opened again under new ownership, eventually being saved from bankruptcy by Fritz Maytag, the great-grandson of the founder of Maytag washers. Fritz continued Anchor’s offbeat approach, making beers that the country didn’t even know it wanted. Anchor Steam was the first, but a porter soon followed, with Liberty Ale, the first dry hopped ale in the U.S., coming quickly on its heels. And with all its beers being brewed by open fermentation, it’s also on the leading edge of the wild yeast movement just hitting its stride in the last few years.
Fritz Maytag sold the business in 2010, but the brewery is still going strong, featuring 10 brews and a gorgeous brewing facility in San Francisco that the business moved into in 1979. The one difference is the business philosophy – Fritz Maytag simply wanted the brewery to be profitable. The new ownership at Anchor is hungry to make its mark and is looking to go bigger.
And with beers like these, they’re likely to get their wish.
Anchor Steam – The crystal clear amber classic that launched the 140 year-old brand, Anchor Steam is easy and smooth. It maintains enough complexity and flavor to be interesting though, with tasty Belgian-style yeast notes and a very light body. It doesn’t stand out in any one way, but somehow manages to be far greater than the sum of its parts.
Liberty Ale — The first dry-hopped ale available in the U.S., Liberty Ale is dramatically different from the current crop of insanely hopped beers so popular in the country. Some nice citrus and banana notes come through clearly with just enough hoppy bite to balance out the almost honey-like sweetness and bready malt. The beautiful foamy head tops off a gorgeous coppery amber brew and makes for a tasty fireside sipper, though it’s versatile enough to fit in perfectly on a nice warm summer day, though we’ve got a couple months before that’s a solid possibility.
Brekle’s Brown – Named for the brewery’s founder, Brekle’s is an American Brown Ale that’s a bit different from many of the brewery’s other offerings. A deep ruby brown on the pour, with sweet malts and an interestingly piney bite courtesy of Citra hops. The toffee flavors translate to an odd Tootsie Roll-like aftertaste though – a bit odd at first, but paired with dessert it’s a nice touch.
Anchor Porter – With all the experimental Porters on the market, it’s nice to see one that hits all the traditional notes squarely on the head. A menacingly deep dark brown, the beer packs a massive punch of chocolate, coffee and sweet malt. It’s complex enough for a man to get lost in, with a thick and creamy mouthfeel that has a satisfying, almost chewy texture. It’s far more of a meal than Guinness and with just enough carbonation to clear off the palate for another sip (and then another and another), it’s a bottle to keep coming back to.