In a non-descript building at the foot of San Francisco’s quiet Potrero Hill is a sacred spot for beer aficionados, a Mecca of sorts for suds lovers from around the globe. Anchor Brewing was among the few small brewers who started the country’s craft brew renaissance about forty years ago and the firm continues to lead the way as the Bay Area’s flagship brewery, producing its signature Anchor Steam beer and a host of other tasty brews.
Anchor has its roots in the turn of the 19th century, when “steam” was a nickname for beer brewed on the West Coast of America under primitive conditions and without ice. The original practice of fermenting the beer on San Francisco’s rooftops in a cool climate, when the city’s infamous fogs naturally cooled the fermenting beer, creating steam off the warm open pans. Once a nickname for any West Coast beer brewed under these conditions, today the name “steam” is a trademark of Anchor Brewing and applies only to the singular process and taste of their flagship brand. It’s a process that they say “combines deep respect for brewing tradition with many decades of evolution to arrive at a unique approach: a blend of pale and caramel malts, fermentation with lager yeast at warmer ale temperatures in shallow open-air fermenters, and gentle carbonation in cellars through an all-natural process called kräusening.”
The rich history of Anchor Brewing can be traced back to the California gold rush, when German brewer Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco with his family. Brekle bought an old beer-and-billiards saloon on Pacific Street near Russian Hill for $3,500, transforming it into the brewery that, twenty-five years later, would be renamed Anchor.
After the devastating fire following San Francisco’s great earthquake of 1906 consumed Anchor, the brewery reopened at a new location south of Market until Prohibition effectively shut Anchor down in 1920. After Prohibition ended in April 1933, Anchor Steam Beer reappeared. By 1965, Anchor, beaten down by the popularity of mass market beers, nearly shut down again.
During a meal at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a North Beach restaurant, a young Stanford grad named Fritz Maytag learned that the makers of his favorite beer were soon to close their doors forever. Despite its primitive equipment and financial condition, Fritz rushed to buy 51% of the historic little San Francisco brewery —for a few thousand dollars—rescuing Anchor from imminent bankruptcy.
One hundred years after Gottlieb Brekle founded the brewery that became Anchor, Maytag 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 and northern California.
By 1977, Anchor had five products, a dozen employees and had nearly outgrown its most recent Brewery on 8th Street. After a long search, Fritz Maytag purchased an old coffee roastery, built in 1937, on Potrero Hill. On August 13, 1979, Anchor brewed its first steam beer at its new Mariposa Street home, which remains its home today.
Anchor Steam Beer owes its deep amber color, thick, creamy head, and rich, distinctive flavor to a brewing process like none other. You can tour the factory’s inner sanctum (reservations required) on a fascinating, free guided walking tour. You start by the glowing copper kettles of the brewing room and continue through the fermenting and aging areas, and the noisy bottling and packing line line. The tour’s grand finale is an unrushed tasting session in the cozy tasting room lined with San Francisco and Anchor Brewery memorabilia. It’s truly a classic destination for a taste of old San Francisco.
Anchor Brewery currently offer two public tours each weekday, free of charge, by reservation only. The walking tour of the brewery lasts about 45 minutes. The tour guide will give you a brief history of the brewery and walk you through three floors of our building. Children are welcome to come on the tour, but of course may not taste the beer during the tasting session, which follows the walking tour. You may have up to ten in your party, depending on the availability of space. Altogether, the tour and the tasting last for about 1.5 hours, and tastings are only available to those who take the tour. For tour reservations call 415-863-8350, ext 0, Monday through Friday, 9am to 4pm Pacific time.