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Historic Anchor ready to steam again

Added: Sunday, June 9th 2024


The Anchor Brewery in San Francisco that played a key role in the American craft beer revolution but was axed by a global brewer in 2013 has been saved and should reopen by the end of this year.

The brewery, famous for its historic Steam Beer, has been bought by Hamdi Ulukaya, the billionaire owner and chief executive of the Chobrani yogurt company.

Anchor was 127 years old when it was closed by the Japanes brewer Sapporo. Ulukaya, of Turkish descendant, is based on the East Coast but he says he fell in love with San Francisco and its unique brewing history when he visited.

“I learned the story of this amazing beer brand – America’s oldest craft beer,” he told the San Francisco Standard. “It’s deeply rooted in the city.”

He has a strong track record of rescuing failed businesses. Chobrani had been closed by Kraft Foods but Ulukaya overhauled the brands, made speciality Turkish-style yogurt and turned it into a highly profitable company.

The story of Anchor Brewery revolves round another wealthy businessman, Fritz Maytag (below), hailed as the father of the American craft beer movement. He was a member of the Maytag dynasty that makes “white goods” – washing machines, cookers and refrigerators – and he cashed in some of his shares in the company to buy Anchor in 1965.

At the time, he was a student at Stanford University and he enjoyed Steam Beer in a local bar. One evening he was told by the barman it would be his last glass as the brewery was about to close.

Maytag found that the rundown brewery under a freeway was so strapped for cash that it had only one employee and beer was fermented with baker’s yeast. He bought the plant, nursed it back to success and eventually moved it to an impressive 1930s Art Deco building previously used to roast coffee.

Steam Beer has its origins in the Gold Rush of the late 1890s. When prospectors arrived in the small, Mexican town of San Francicso, they found most people drank wine or tequila.

But the gold diggers wanted the refreshing lager beer they’d found on the East Coast. The problem was that brewers in San Francisco lacked refrigerators and ice.

They attempted to solve the problem by obtaining lager yeasts they used to ferment beer but at warmer, ale temperatures. The result was beer with such a high level of carbonation that when kegs were tapped in local bars they gave off a hiss of gas that drinkers said sounded like steam trains.

An alternative theory for the name is that fermenting beer was left to cool on the roofs of breweries and passers-by could see steam rising from the cooling trays. Either way, the beer style became widespread, with around 25 breweries in San Francisco and more producers in other parts of the state.

It became so widely available that it was also known as California Common Beer. But it became less common in the 20th century as a result of Prohibition, the Great Depression and the rise of giant lager brewers. The brewery Fritz Maytag bought in 1965 was the last one left in San Francisco.

While Steam Beer (5 per cent) was the flagship brand, Maytag knew he needed more beers to build a viable commercial enterprise. He toured England, visiting such renowned breweries as Marston’s in Burton-on-Trent, Timothy Taylor in Keighley, Yorkshire, and Young’s in London. Fired with enthusiasm, he returned home and designed Liberty Ale (6 per cent), a beer that inspired a legion of beer lovers and home brewers to start their own ale breweries.

Over the following years he added a number of new beers, including Porter, Wheat Beer, Old Foghorn Barley Wine and Our Special Ale, the last named brewed annually for Thanksgiving and Christmas with different secret ingredients each year such as cloves, coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg.

When Maytag installed a new brew house, designed and built by German specialists, the area set aside for making Steam Beer was kept well away from the conventional brewing section. This was to avoid any cross fertilisation of yeast cultures.

Fermentation for Steam Beer takes place in open vessels just 60cm (2 ft) deep, using a lager yeast culture but at a warm temperature of between 16 to 24C (60 to 70F). The grains are pale and crystal malts and the single hop is Northern Brewer, added three times during the copper boil.

Following fermentation, the beer is warm conditioned for three weeks and is then kräusened – a German term meaning a portion of partially fermented beer is added to encourage a strong further fermentation.

The finished beer is bronze coloured with a rich malty and nutty aroma, tart fruit and spicy hop resins. The firm palate has biscuit malt, citrus fruit and tart hops followed by a long finish dominated by malt and tart fruit but with a late burst of bitter hops. It’s a complex beer, crisp and refreshing like a lager but with fruity ale-like notes.

In 2010, nearing his eighties, Fritz Maytag sold the brewery to the Griffin Group, an investment and consultancy company that specialises in building alcohol brands. Griffin didn’t own Anchor for long and in 2017 sold it to Sapporo for $85 million.

The Japanese brewery closed Anchor in 2023 following a redesign of the beer labels that was bitterly criticised by lovers of Anchor beers. Hamdi Ulukaya says he will restore traditional branding and images.

He will do his best to bring back as many former employees as possible and plans to start brewing by the end of the year.

•As well as reviving Steam Beer, Fritz Maytag added to beer lovers’ knowledge and appreciation by creating a beer first brewed in the Old World of Sumeria some 4,000 years BC. The recipe had been found in an ode to Ninkasi, the Goddess of Beer in Babylon and Sumeria. In 1989 Maytag and his brewers made beer using bappir or twice-baked bread, with malted and roasted barley. No hops were used as they were unknown to brewers in the Old World but Maytag added honey and dates.

He called the beer Ninkasi to honour the goddess and said: “It wasn’t a wonderful beer but it was an interesting beer. It was a very eerie feeling, as though we were rubbing the magic lamp.”