Anchor is history itself. It’s San Francisco’s only surviving pre-Prohibition brewery and also has the distinction of being America’s first craft brewery. It was craft before craft was cool. If you can only visit one brewery while visiting the Bay Area, this is the one to see. You’ll need to plan ahead, but it will be worth it. The whole brewery has the feel of a working museum.
Originally opened in 1896, Anchor’s roots go even deeper, back to the beginning of the gold rush in 1849, when German brewer Gottlieb Brekle first arrived in San Francisco with his family in tow. Twenty-two years later, he bought a billiard parlor saloon on Pacific Street that he turned into a brewery in 1871. In 1896, Brekle
sold the brewery to Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law Otto Schinkel Jr., who renamed it Anchor Brewery. From then until Prohibition closed the brewery in 1920, a series of owners came and went, all making Anchor Steam Beer, one of America’s few original styles of beer.
After Prohibition, like many breweries, Anchor struggled under different owners. It was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when, in 1965, recent Stanford graduate Fritz Maytag stepped in and rescued the brewery, initially buying 51 percent of the business. To say that Maytag turned around the brewery’s fortunes would be an understatement. To say that he changed the course of brewing in America would not be going too far. For the first six years, Maytag exhaustively researched the history of brewing and steam beer, traveling to England and elsewhere to observe traditional brewing practices firsthand. By 1971, he was ready, and his brewery introduced Anchor Steam Beer in bottles for the first time since before Prohibition. Building on that success, they followed with more beer “firsts” throughout the 1970s.
By the late 1970s, success necessitated a bigger brewery. In 1979, the brewery moved to its present location on Potrero Hill, installing the fifties-built copper Ziemann brewhouse that has become the centerpiece of the brewing operations. The 1937 four-story building had originally been a coffee roastery. It’s a gorgeous old building, both inside and out. Sitting on the corner of Mariposa and De Haro Streets, it’s a majestic sight, with the corner tower reaching to the sky, flagpole on top. Inside, it’s like stepping back in time.
From the main entrance, you take a flight of stairs to the main brewery floor, where there’s a reception area, a few offices, the taproom bar and museum, and those iconic copper kettles. The open fermenters and the hops room are also on that floor, while the bottling line and fermenters are down one floor. But it’s the taproom where you’ll spend the most time. That’s where you start and end a tour, and where the brewery entertains and hosts events. Inside the taproom, you’ll find breweriana and historic memorabilia on the walls, in display cases, and behind the bar. It’s like a museum where you can have a pint of beer.
In 2010, the new era of Anchor began, when Fritz Maytag sold the business to the Griffin Group, a partnership between drinks business veterans Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. The pair met in the early 1980s while working for International Distillers and Vintners, which later became Diageo, the spirits giant and owner of Guinness. Since creating the Griffin Group, they’ve also purchased a minority interest in Scotland’s notorious BrewDog and bought Preiss Imports, a company carrying a dizzying array of spirits along with the distribution rights to two imported beer brands, Cooper’s of Australia and BrewDog.
Apart from changing the official name to Anchor Brewers & Distillers, the new owners made few changes, especially not to the iconic beer or spirits brands that Anchor has built, although they’ve slowly begun making additions to the lineup. For example, they launched Brekle’s Brown and added the one-off Humming Ale to their seasonal offerings. They also started the Zymaster Series, quarterly draft-only releases created by longtime brewmaster Mark Carpenter. So far, they’ve released two in the series: California Lager, based on the first lager brewed in California, and Mark’s Mild, one of my favorite styles of beer and one of the most under appreciated.
Anchor has been operating at near capacity for a number of years, so the new owners are also looking for ways to increase their annual output. They installed a new bottling line last year, and other modifications are under way to fit more fermenters in the building so they can brew more beer.
On 3 August 2017, it was acquired by Japanese brewing giant Sapporo Breweries for US$85 million.
Forged in San Francisco in 1896, we are proud to be america’s first craft brewery.