The story of Anchor Brewing is unlike any other in the United States. It has survived a tremendous amount of change and misfortune since it began as a beer and billiards saloon in 1871. If you want to tell the history of beer in California, this is the only place to start. We already covered a great variety pack in podcast episode 13, so it was a good time to schedule an official History of Hops tour to learn more about this unique brewery. My wife and I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10 AM on a Tuesday morning to explore. Actually strike that, we arrived fairly rough around the edges. Let me see if I can explain this without sounding like terrible people.
With the tour scheduled somewhat early in the morning, I thought it would be a good chance to take an overnight trip up to San Francisco. My wife and I were on vacation for the week, and a quick getaway seemed like a great idea. It was, but we made a few mistakes along the way. We arrived Monday afternoon and checked in to our beautiful room at Hotel Zephyr. This place was right on the waterfront and made parking in the city easy; I highly recommend it. We decided to walk a few blocks to the Rogue Ales Public House and have a drink. It was actually pouring down rain at the time, as it was throughout most of this trip. I’m not going to lie, we went full nerd. We had our matching Rogue shirts on and threw our Rogue Nation membership cards down on the bar. It was glorious.
The Night Goes Sideways
The tap list was overwhelming. San Francisco Beer week had wrapped up a few days prior, so they had an impressive list of hard to find beers to go along with the unique Rogue offerings. I could do a whole post on what I drank there, but the one that really stood out was Goose Island’s Bourbon Country Stout. This hefty barrel-aged beer is 13.8% but still goes down smooth. It is thick like molasses and sweet like vanilla. I stayed with a 4-ounce taster, but it still packed a punch. So after trying way too many different beers, we glided up the street to dinner at a place called The Stinking Rose.
We tend to visit The Stinking Rose about once a year for dinner. My wife is a former Garlic Queen, which is a pageant held in the garlic capital of the world; Gilroy, California. Her picture is up in the restaurant. Typically we have the kids with us, so we keep it pretty low-key, but tonight we were celebrating our little getaway. It had been twenty years since she had been crowned, and as fate would have it, she ended up with the same waiter she had all those years ago. He had us taking pictures and sending them to him, and then he took extremely good care of us at dinner. By that, I mean we had some fairly liberal wine pours. It was delicious food and a great time.
The Morning After
I better get back to the point of us being in the city and the topic of this post. We made it to bed by midnight, which should have given us plenty of time to rest and recoup before the tour. Except it wasn’t, because we aren’t in our 20’s anymore. We both woke up feeling a bit queasy and started downing bottles of water. I decided to try to get a run in. Once I push past the initial death warmed over feeling, it tends to be a good way to sweat out a bit of the bad stuff and settle my stomach. My 30-minute run was amazing on the San Francisco waterfront. Unfortunately that really only gave me a 30-minute reprieve from the sour stomach I was struggling with. We showered up and headed down to catch a Lyft to the brewery.
I mentioned it had been raining, right? San Francisco is not an easy town to drive in. It is crowded, hilly, and generally a slog to get even a few miles down the road. Throw in some rain, a crazy Lyft driver, and an already sensitive stomach, and you get a recipe for disaster. My wife texted me partway through the drive, “I hope we don’t die.” We tumbled out of the car in front of the brewery and took a few moments to try and recover. We nibbled on bagels slowly in an attempt to soothe our tumultuous tummies. Unfortunately time was up, and we needed to get inside and join the tour.
Getting Our Act Together
The outer facade of Anchor Brewing is fairly understated. It looks like a somewhat dated industrial building and is not nearly as sprawling as many of the breweries we have visited. Walking through the doors is like stepping back in time. There is a very classic look and feel to everything inside the brewery. They are in the midst of building a new taproom across the street, so I am interested in seeing if they manage to keep the same simple feel that felt so warm and inviting when I walked through Anchor.
We went upstairs to a large bar area where our tour would begin. This taproom is not actually licensed to sell alcohol, so it is strictly for the tour and the employees. This also explains a bit behind why they charge for tours. Many breweries have free tours but also sell beer out of a taproom, however Anchor likely needs that fee to keep the taproom going. They served us a sample of the famous Steam Beer and our guide Braden began telling about the history of the brewery.
History Like No Other
I went over most of the history in podcast episode 13, but it was great to hear it from another source and Braden was an excellent storyteller. Gottlieb Brekle was the original owner of what eventually became Anchor. He sold it to Ernst Baruth and Otto Schinkel in 1896, and they renamed it Anchor and expanded it through the city of San Francisco. Anchor still makes a beer called Brekle’s Brown, which hearkens back to the original owner.
Both owners passed away about a decade later, and the brewery burned down in the horrific fire that occurred after the 1906 earthquake. But it was saved by Joseph Krause, August Meyer, and Henry Tietjen. Prohibition was the next obstacle, but after the 21st Amendment was passed, Joseph Krause re-opened the brewery and kept Anchor alive. It stayed in the Krause family until 1952, when Joe Allen Krause passed away. This was a period of time when mass production beer was taking over the market, and a small craft brewery only serving San Francisco was not a profitable endeavor. It struggled to stay open until 1965, when it caught the eye of a young entrepreneur named Fritz Maytag.
Fritz Maytag was a Stanford Grad and was eating at the Old Spaghetti Factory one night when the bartender served him a Steam Beer made just down the street. The bartender mentioned that might be the last beer of its kind, because the brewery was set to close in days. Fritz wanted to have a look at the brewery before that happened. It was run down and in desperate need of work, but Fritz saw potential and bought Anchor Brewing for a few thousand dollars. It took years for Fritz to learn the ropes of brewing and improve the quality and consistency, but he bottled Anchor beer for the first time in 1971. By 1975 they had four different styles that were a vast departure from the light American lagers that dominated the beer market. There was the Anchor Porter, an IPA-like Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine, and the Christmas Ale. Anchor still produces each one of these to this day.
Our tour began with the three iconic copper kettles where every Anchor beer is produced. Anchor Brewery is not a large space, but they seem to maximize every square inch available. Next we made our way over to giant open fermentation tubs. Most breweries have a closed fermentation system, so this was a rare sight. We were not allowed inside, of course, because they basically treat this like a clean room in order to prevent any contamination. Getting to see the yeast and wort interact firsthand was my highlight of the trip.
We made our way downstairs to the rows of cold tanks where the beer is finished off. They spend 1-3 days upstairs in the copper kettles before coming down here for conditioning and filtration. After that we checked out the bottling line, where rows of Anchor’s unique tear drop bottles await their fill of liquid gold. They’ve also got a canning line going. Then our guide led us back upstairs for a chance to try many of the different beers Anchor is brewing. I wish we were in better shape to drink, because there was a nice mix of classics and creative new styles available to us. But to be honest, this might be a great excuse to make another trip out to Anchor, especially since they are finishing their new taproom in the spring. As the oldest craft brewery in the country, you owe it to yourself to check out Anchor Brewing.