Anchor Steam Brewery – SF’s Historical Beer

Johnny Tripod – Guest BrewTours writer, former assistant brewer at Pike Brewing Company, and current SF homebrewer – writes about his time at Anchor Steam Brewery in February:


On a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon I attended a brewery tour at Anchor Brewing in Potrero Hill, San Francisco. With me were the workers and owners of Wood Thumb, a woodshop in the nearby Dogpatch neighborhood that specializes in wood neckties. The rest of the group had never visited the acclaimed brewery before so I knew they were all in for a treat.

Anchor Brewing has a storied San Francisco history. The original brewery was begun by Gottlieb Brekel in 1871 in an old beer and billiards hall on Pacific Street in the Russian Hill neighborhood. Bought by Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law Otto Schinkel, Jr in 1896 and renamed Anchor, it survived earthquakes, fires, deaths of founders and Prohibition. By the 1960’s, though, increasing competition from mass-marketed national brands and deteriorating facilities had left Anchor on the verge of bankruptcy.  Fritz Maytag of the famous appliance family had recently moved to San Francisco after graduating from Stanford and often enjoyed the local Anchor Steam beer at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach. The beer was gaining a reputation for spoiling and the owner suggested he stop by the Anchor brewery as it would soon be going out of business. He did and ended up buying most of the company in 1965 and the rest in 1968.

When Fritz bought the brewery they had their one beer, Anchor Steam. Fritz began modernizing the brewery and he moved the company to its present location in Potrero Hill.  In addition to bringing Anchor into the modern age he also began introducing new styles to the region. First came Anchor Porter in 1974. In 1975, coinciding with their first profitable year, Anchor released Liberty Ale, the first dry hopped beer in the U.S.A. as well as the hoppiest. The following year brought their first Christmas beer which they have continued to release every winter with a different recipe and tree-themed label. Old Foghorn, their 9% alcohol by volume barley wine was also released in 1975 in small 9 oz. bottles. 1984 brought their Summer Wheat, the first wheat beer brewed in the country since Prohibition. A small beer (3.3% ABV) for easy drinking came out in 1998. A spring seasonal, Anchor Bock arrived in 2005 as well as Humming Ale in 2009 to mark the 30th anniversary of Fritz Maytag taking over complete control of Anchor. Fritz finally sold the company in 2011 to Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio and the Brekels Brown made its appearance the same year. This year they company has also released a new California lager and an ale blend called OBA that is aged in barrels and is available around town.

Our tour group met in the tasting room on the second floor. Our tour guide, Teagan, first gave us the history of Anchor as I’ve noted above. She then led us to the brew house which showcases the beautiful copper kettle and mash-tun surrounded by tile floor.

Anchor brews 100 barrel batches, 5 times a day. We passed alongside the open fermenters that contain their flagship Anchor Steam beer. This is their only beer that uses lager yeast (except for the new California Lager) but they ferment at a warmer-than-normal lager temperature of 60 degrees to bring out more ale characteristics. All the other beers in the Anchor line use ale yeast at 70 degree fermentations. On our way to the cellar we passed the Hop Room where we all inhaled the amazing and pungent smell of whole hops. Anchor only uses hop cones, not pellets. All their hops come from Washington State except for a New Zealand hop they have begun using called Citra.

Down a flight of stairs led us to the cellar where all the beers undergo maturation at 50 degrees. Several of the beers, such as Liberty and the new OBA, get dry hopped at this stage. After cellaring they get filtered and head to the bottling or kegging area. Teagan informed us the new bottling line can handle 400 bottles a minute and 6700 cases/day. The bottles aren’t reused but they do get recycled and turned into new bottles at a nearby Oakland bottling plant.

Back in the tasting room Teagan starting pouring beers for the group.

One of the newer beers is a California Lager which is very clean with a slightly sweet finish. Quite nice. Next up was the classic Steam beer which we all know and love. Such nice balance and very drinkable which is one reason it’s a mainstay of mine around town. Brekel Brown, also a relatively new beer, was next. Named for Gottlieb Brekel, the old brewmaster from the pre-Anchor brewery on Pacific Street in Russian Hill, the Brown has a mid-hoppiness and a nice sweetness to round it off. A little sour note at the finish made for a tasty brew. The Anchor Bock was then poured and it surprised many of us as it comes in at a reasonable 5.6% alcohol level, low for a traditional bock. It had a crisp hoppy finish without a lot of sweetness which can often dominate a heavier bock beer. The dark Porter, a favorite of mine, had that lovely bitterness with the chocolate malt sweetness that defines the style. Yummy! Anchors contribution to the IPA was next in their Liberty Ale. Compared to more modern West Coast IPAs such as Racer 5 or Pliny the Elder, Liberty is very tame in the bitterness department. Drinkable and won’t wear the palate out. Probably not too impressive to hopheads, though. Old Foghorn, the Anchor barley wine, was cautiously tasted as it has that high alcohol level of all barley wines. It’s a big, sweet beer with lots of hops that get buried in all that sweetness and alcohol. Nice on a cold, foggy SF night. Lastly came the newest beer and – surprise! – a blend. Our Barrel Ale, OBA, is equal parts Liberty, Old Foghorn and Bock. All three beers are aged in whiskey barrels for 4-6 months and then blended together. An interesting beer, quite tasty I thought although others in the group weren’t as taken with it. I have seen it around town on tap.

It was such a pleasure seeing all the Wood Thumb workers enjoying themselves so much at the San Francisco icon that is Anchor Brewing. It’s a place steeped in the history of both SF and the microbrewery movement. I have visited the Potrero Hill brewery often and love it every single time. Consider booking a tour yourself. You won’t be disappointed.




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