I have been to San Francisco many times before, but I had never visited one of America’s oldest craft breweries (or the oldest depending on your definition). I decided to rectify that, and it was certainly helpful that my friend lived only 2 blocks away from Anchor Brewing in Potrero Hill. Anchor does not have a tap room in the traditional sense. In order to drink at the brewery, you have to sign up for a tour before visiting. I reserved my spot for $20 and showed up at the brewery for an 11 AM tour on a Wednesday.
It fortuitously proved to be a small tour group of <10 people, and the small size allowed for us to ask our awesome tour guide Ryan as many questions as we wanted. After whetting our palates with a fresh pour of Anchor Steam, he started off by going over the extensive history of Anchor. I won’t repeat the history lesson here (Wikipedia and Anchor’s own website do a much better job than I can), but some of the highlights are certainly interesting. Anchor traces its roots back to the California gold rush of 1849 when a German brewer immigrated with his family to San Francisco. In 1871, a former beer and billiards saloon was converted into the first location to brew the iconic steam beer Anchor would become famous for. At the time, it was one of around 30 breweries in the city brewing the steam style beer. The first brewery to call itself Anchor opened in 1896 when another German brewer and his son-in-law bought the saloon. This would be the first of six locations that Anchor called home, most of them being lost to unfortunate fires. Anchor survived the Prohibition years with no “official” business, legal or illegal, taking place during this time. However, when Prohibition ended Anchor magically began selling beer just a couple days later. If you know anything about brewing beer, it takes more than a couple days beyond an initial brew for a beer to be ready for consumption. Anchor struggled in the late 1950’s to mid-1960’s as American tastes migrated towards mass produced and heavily marketed light lagers. In 1965 Anchor was saved by a young Stanford grad, Fritz Maytag. Anyone who knows appliances will undoubtedly recognize that name. He purchased 51% of Anchor for a few thousands dollars and ensured that the brewery would not close its doors. Anchor Steam Beer would first be bottled in 1971, and by 1976 the brewery would have four other beers in its portfolio. Having outgrown their brewery on 8th street, Anchor moved locations in 1979 to its current spot in an old coffee roastery in Potrero Hill. The rest, as they say, is history. Anchor has grown to become the 22nd largest craft brewery in America as of 2016, and their beer can be found in 24 countries around the world.
With the history of the brewery behind us, it was time for Ryan to tell and then show us what made Anchor special. Impressively all Anchor beer consumed throughout the world is brewed in the three all-copper kettles located in the brewhouse just beyond the tap room doors. I’m always impressed by the craftsmanship that goes into making such large vessels, and these were truly works of art. The brew kettles had been brought over from Germany and were the same ones being used since 1979. Anchor employees still pour all ingredients into the vessels by hand, and they also clean the kettles with the old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears method.
The brewery is obviously most well known for its Steam Beer. This style of beer dates back to the gold rush. Lager yeast was brewed at higher ale temperatures, and lacking efficient means to cool the wort down, it would be dumped into large metallic vessels and exposed to the cool air coming off the Pacific Ocean, creating its namesake steam. As sour beer aficionados know, this process is similar to spontaneous fermentation, and it very often resulted in poor quality beer with undesirable off flavors. Anchor has modernized the process by placing their cooling vessels in reverse pressurized rooms that are filtered to remove any contaminants. Seeing the wort bubble as part of its fermentation was a cool sight.
After viewing the lager and ale primary fermentation rooms, we checked out the hop room with its delicious aroma and then made our way down to the basement where Anchor keeps its fermentation tanks. The total combined capacity of their tanks was 10,000 barrels, allowing their ales and lagers to go through secondary fermentation. A man could get pretty drunk drinking that much beer. A quick jaunt through the filtration room and packaging floor took us back to what I was really looking forward to: drinking more beer! As mentioned earlier, the tour group was small, so Ryan allowed us to taste all 11 beers they had on tap plus a special magnum of the 2016 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (Our Special Ale) brew. I came away impressed by the Anchor Porter as it was a drastic improvement over the bottled version I had had before. Their other dark beers, the Barrel Ale and Special Ale, were likewise enjoyable and helped me build an early afternoon baby buzz. With no food in my stomach, it was time to wander to the Mission to grab some lunch.
Overall I enjoyed my tour of Anchor. While I was initially disappointed they did not have a traditional tap room, the tour proved to be educational and offered a glimpse into craft beer history. I feel like I got my $20 worth, but I also would probably not go back. Going on the tour a second time is not a good enough excuse to drink the equivalent of a couple of their beers on draft. According to Ryan, they have plans to open a tap room and begin a sour program in an adjacent facility. I look forward to checking that out when it has opened.