The Anchor Brewing Story
History in a GlassWhile there are countless beers that are weird for the sake of being weird or because their odd combination of ingredients works, there’s something unique about quirkiness rooted in the past. —Zak Stambor, Chicago Tribune (2014)
Welcome to San Francisco! And thanks for including Anchor Brewing on your itinerary. Time for a beer, right?
Here you go. Let’s have a seat. You know, people have been having friendly conversations over beer for thousands of years. So here’s to Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer! But more about her later. Let’s talk a little about that Anchor Steam in your glass and slow everything down so we can fully experience it from start to finish. First, lift your glass up to the light, twist it slowly back and forth. Note the deep amber and coppery colors and the bubbles wending their way to the surface, where they join a thick, creamy head of foam.
Tilt your glass a little and then back upright. What remains on the side of your glass is called lacing
, one of the hallmarks of a naturally carbonated beer. If you don’t see lacing on your Anchor at home, by the way, start washing your beer glasses with hot water, but no soap, which destroys the head on a well-made beer.
Now swirl the beer around just a little and bring the glass up to your nose. What do you get— besides thirstier? There are no wrong answers. For me, it’s subtle aromas of fresh mint, evergreen, and wood outside an old-fashioned bakery; a synergistic complexity, with hints of caramel, fresh herbs, spices, fruit, and even flowers.
Bring the glass to your lips and take a small sip. Savor the mouthfeel and taste. Are they what the aromas invited you to experience? I get the gentle nip of lively bubbles, followed by velvety smoothness. There’s fullness and richness without heaviness, a marvelously refreshing balance of bitter and sweet. It’s biscuity, caramelly, a little fruity, with just a hint of savory herbal spiciness.
Now take a bigger sip to experience the finish. Does it linger? I get a hint of toffee-like sweetness, caught in a balancing act with mellow bitterness, followed by a farewell wave from the bubbles. Does it quench your thirst but beckon you to have another?
You probably noticed that I didn’t use the ingredients themselves to describe the beer—no “malty, hoppy, yeasty” or—God forbid—“watery.” That would be a cop-out. But one of the great joys of drinking beer is that we don’t have to wait for an expert opinion. We get to describe it however we see fit—and debate it over a second glass! Indeed, beer may just be the most democratic of all beverages.
To me, Anchor Steam is the uniquely extraordinary, everyday beer. No wonder it’s the sole survivor of the first Golden Age of San Francisco brewing. It’s history in a glass, and it never gets old. As Anchor’s own brewery historian, I must confess that I have gotten a little older since my first day at Anchor, May 20, 1991. In those days, everyone started out in production—on the bottling line or filling kegs—and eventually learned how to do just about every job at the brewery on their way to finding the job that suited them best. From day one, I was curious about the brewery’s unique history and asked a lot of questions, including many of Fritz Maytag. Fritz, great-grandson of the founder of the eponymous appliance company, was owner, president, and brewmaster of Anchor for forty-five years. I got to work alongside him for two decades, and he was always generous with his knowledge, wisdom, and insight. But even he didn’t have all the answers, which only added to my enthusiastic determination to learn more. So what makes Anchor’s story so special?
Traditionally, beer is made from four basic ingredients: barley malt, which gives it sweetness, body, and color; hops, which gives it bitterness and aroma; water, of course; and yeast, the hardestworking organism in the brewery. Yeast feasts on the malt’s sugars, transforming them into alcohol and CO2 (booze and bubbles) during fermentation, the yeast’s reproductive cycle.
Ever wonder why Grape-Nuts cereal tastes a little sweet, even though sugar isn’t listed as one of its ingredients? It gets its sweetness from malted barley. First, barley is steeped in water and allowed to germinate, releasing enzymes that convert its complex starches into more simple sugars—aka yeast food! The malt is then kiln dried, a bit like roasting coffee, giving it different colors and flavors according to the time in and temperature of the kiln.
Like a master chef—who might use Arborio, basmati, or jasmine rice; lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice; olive oil, butter, or sesame oil; a saucepan, a sauté pan, or a wok—one of the great joys of brewing comes from the myriad choices we have of ingredients and methods, combined in a distinctly distinctive way. For Anchor Steam, the ingredients are 2-row pale and caramel malt, whole-cone Northern Brewer hops, San Francisco tap water, which comes to us all the way from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, and our own special yeast. (More about these later.)
Do you like IPAs? They’re all the rage today, in almost as many varieties as there are IPA drinkers. Well, in the mid-1800s lagers
were all the rage, especially in the parts of Europe and North America with cold winters and lots of ice available year-round.
Yes, ice. By definition, lager beers are made with lager yeast, a type of yeast that does its best work at very cold temperatures over long periods of time. The word lager
comes from an old German word meaning to store, lie down, or rest, and that’s just what Germans did with their lager beers: After an initial cool fermentation they lagered (stored) their lagers for months at a time in alpine caves or deep cellars, often literally on ice harvested from nearby lakes and ponds and kept available in icehouses year-round. It is during this lagering
process—this slow secondary fermentation—that lager beer develops its characteristic crisp, clean flavors.
After the discovery of gold in California in 1848, German beer drinkers and brewers flocked to San Francisco, bringing with them the thirst for a good lager and the ingenuity to make one. In those days, as Mark Twain reminisced in Life on the Mississippi
, ice “was jewelry. None but the rich could wear it.” During the California Gold Rush, ice was sometimes packed in sawdust and brought in by ship from Sitka or around the Horn from Boston or New York, at a price too dear for beer. There was plenty of ice in the Sierras, of course, but no practicable way to get it to San Francisco until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. And ice-making technology and modern refrigeration were decades away.
But San Francisco was—and is—the cradle of creativity. “Brought into the world recklessly. Brought up recklessly. And now recklessly alive,” declared Californian William Saroyan with pride. “It is a city with no rules. Like nature itself, it improvises as it goes along. It does what it needs to do at the time and under the circumstances.” So brewers—like our first brewmaster, Gottlieb Brekle—being short on ice but long on ingenuity, ad-libbed, each in their own way, to create California common beer.
Fritz Maytag explained to a fervent fan that California common beers—also called quick-brewed
, or ordinary
beer—are not “specific ‘types’ of beers that can be clearly defined, because what scant evidence exists indicates a very wide range of brewing methods and materials, just as we would expect under pioneering and rapidly changing conditions. Brewers in those days did not follow textbooks; each would do the best he could to make and sell beer quickly and cheaply in the absence of modern technology.” Wooden barrels of California common were delivered by horse-drawn wagon to local saloons as soon as three to five days after brewing. These weren’t lagers in the traditional sense, but during the Gold Rush, Gottlieb Brekle and his fellow San Francisco brewers chose to call them lager anyway. And in those days there were no imported lagers to which they might have been unfavorably compared. So lager
became the catchall term for nearly all of the beers brewed in California other than ale or porter. And it didn’t take long before Californians began asking for these California commons—these so-called lagers, brewed under primitive conditions and without ice—by their catchier, quirkier, colloquial nickname: steam beer
. And for many decades, Anchor alone—the lone survivor of this bygone era—has used the quaint name steam
for its unique beer. Today Steam Beer
is a trademark of Anchor Brewing Company.