It is almost impossible to overstate the Anchor Brewing Co.’s contributions to American beer during the past half-century. It is the oldest craft brewery and perhaps the most influential one, with a roster of firsts that would be the envy of any operation, large or small.
A sampler: the first seasonal craft beer, the first craft porter, the first barleywine in modern times and the first American wheat beer since Prohibition, which was also the first craft beer to call itself “summer” (more on that later). Oh, and of course, the only genuine steam beer in America (more on that later, too).
The modern iteration of San Francisco’s Anchor dates from August 1965 — 50 years ago next month — when Fritz Maytag, an heir to the Iowa-based home-appliance fortune, bought control of the struggling brewery for what he described at the time as the price of a used car. Anchor, which dated from 1896 and had been through several owners before Maytag, was the last independently owned brewery in the U.S. making small batches of beer with traditional ingredients.
Such an approach basically assured its oblivion back then, during an era of rapid consolidation wherein (just like now) a few brewing companies made most of the beer consumed in the U.S. What they made (just like now) was generally watery, thin and ruthlessly inoffensive, with additions such as corn and rice speeding up fermentation and insuring an almost creepy consistency no matter where the beer was made or how far it was shipped. These beers were triumphs of engineering, not necessarily taste.
Here came Maytag and his small crew (some of whom are still at the brewery), who spent the late 1960s and early 1970s turning out this band of firsts, plus what many consider the first American IPA and that signature steam brew. The approach all but doomed the brewery financially; it lost money for years and its distribution made it past Northern California only in fits and starts. (The brewery didn’t start bottling its beers until 1971.)
Then, in the mid-1970s, American brewing began to catch up to Anchor. For more than a decade, the facility had been the only craft brewery in the U.S. Others opened, some with active help and encouragement from Maytag. Consumers soon caught up, too. Anchor, in an old coffee grindery in the Potrero Hill neighborhood since 1979, found itself by the late 1980s at the vanguard of what was fast becoming a full-fledged revolution in taste and method in American beer.
You can’t talk about craft beer in the U.S. — its styles, its reach, its people and its trends — without referencing Anchor. Or at least, you shouldn’t.
In 2010, Maytag sold control of the brewery (and of Anchor Distilling, a distillery he launched in 1993) to Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor, veterans of the spirits trade. They boosted production, and the brewery earlier this year opened a beer garden in a lot adjacent to AT&T Park, home of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants. Distribution appears to have widened, too.
Otherwise, the traditions remain largely intact, not least because Foglio and Greggor promoted Mark Carpenter, an Anchor employee since 1971, to brewmaster. That had been Fritz Maytag’s job.
One final note: The Brewers Association, the main trade group representing smaller brewers, altered its definition of a craft brewer in 2014 to include those working with adjuncts such as corn and rice. That opened the definitional door to the likes of Yuengling (founded in 1829) and August Schell (founded in 1860). As far as we, and many others, are concerned, Anchor is still the oldest.
Here are seven beers, representing roughly half of Anchor’s seasonal and year-round output, to ease you into experiencing the granddaddy of craft breweries.
1. Anchor Steam
Anchor owns the trademark to steam beer, one of only three styles original to the U.S., so this is the sole representation of it (at least officially). What is it, exactly? The simplest way of defining Anchor Steam is that it’s a lager brewed like an ale (e.g., at higher temperatures). It’s malty and sweet, with a crisp, slightly bitter finish. Tons of carbonation.
2. Anchor Liberty Ale
When Anchor Liberty Ale first dropped in the spring of 1975 — for the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride — it was a revelation. Made with Cascade hops, the first American-made aroma hop, it set the bitter, citrusy rubric for all other American-style India pale ales to come. While bitter for its original era, Liberty Ale would taste positively mild to most hopheads today.
3. Anchor Summer Beer
Initially released in 1984, this was not only the first American-made wheat beer since Prohibition, but very likely the first U.S. beer, period, to slap “summer” in the name. It’s extremely clean and light, with tiny hints of lemon and a crisp drinkability —and awesome in the heat. (The August Schell Brewing Co., out of Minnesota, also released a wheat beer in the summer of 1984.)
4. California Lager
Anchor uses Cluster hops, one of the most widely used varieties in California in the 19th century, to give this bready throwback what little bitterness comes through. Mostly it’s light on the palate and belly, unobtrusive to a fault. As we’ve said before, perfect for a summer barbecue.
5. Old Foghorn
When Anchor released Old Foghorn in 1975, it resurrected the barleywine style not only in the U.S., but in the U.K., where it was born. True to form, Old Foghorn tastes rich and complex, with a fruity nose and a heavy mouthfeel full of caramel. It’s not to be toyed with, either: Some batches clock in at 10 percent alcohol by volume.
6. Anchor Porter
Breweries had been making the smoky, dark style for decades when Anchor picked it up and ran with it in the winter of 1972, most notably Pennsylvania’s Yuengling, whose porter dates to the early 1800s. Anchor’s iteration, though, marked a turning point. Once one of the world’s most popular beer styles, porter had all but disappeared here and in Europe. Anchor Porter brought it — well, not roaring back, but back from the brink of extinction. Dark, smoky, almost peaty on the finish. Classic.
7. Christmas Beer
This proverbial meal in a glass dates from the fall of 1975 and is considered the first seasonal from an American craft brewer. It is difficult to describe for one elephant-in-the-room reason: Anchor says the recipe changes annually. And from what we’ve been able to tell, that is indeed the case. Generally, though, the Christmas Beer tends to be thick and busy. Also, the label, like the recipe, changes every year, with a different tree designed by artist James Stitt. In 2014, it was the Giant Sequoia. Stay tuned this November for the next one.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for preorder.