Tara Nurin on Anchor Steam Beer

Anchor Steam Beer

Steam® Beer / California Common
First Brewed
1896 / 1971, first bottled in modern times
Malt Varieties
Blend of 2-row Pale and Caramel
Hop Varieties
Northern Brewer
Anchor’s proprietary in-house Lager yeast
Streak with caramelized onions, grilled portobello mushrooms, and any seafood dish.
Tara Nurin on Anchor Steam Beer

I ’ve been putting off writing this post. To tell the truth, it intimidates me. I mean, Anchor Steam is the Moby Dick of flagships, the first modern-day craft beer, the flagship of all flagships. I’m just not sure I can say anything about it without saying everything about it, and let’s be honest, neither of us has that kind of time.

How do you describe the significance of the first beer made by the first independent brewery of the modern era? It’s as if you don’t even need to fully name it, like Cher or Madonna or, in the beer world, Sam (Calagione), Ken (Grossman) or, of course, Fritz (Maytag). In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where I live, everyone knows that when you order a “lager” you get a Yuengling. Anchor is the same. When you order an Anchor you get a Steam. How many people outside our beer bubble even know the brewery by its real name – Anchor Brewing? Most assume it to be Anchor Steam.

Speaking of words, it fits that – as I’ve gleaned from this website – the word “flagship” comes from the nautical world, as does the name “Anchor” as well as the “steam” style, sort of.  Steam beer originated in 19th century San Francisco during the Gold Rush and was popular with dock workers of the era. No one knows for sure why the brewery’s second owner chose to rename the then-25-year-old brewery “Anchor” or how this malty hybrid style – brewed by fermenting with lager yeast at ale temperatures – earned its title.

But we do know three things for sure:

In 1965, Maytag was drinking an Anchor Steam at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach when the owner suggested he visit the insolvent brewery. The next day, he did, and upon learning the 69-year-old factory (which, mind you, had survived Prohibition) was practically minutes away from closing down and taking the last steam beer with it, the heir to the Maytag appliance company invested in 51% of the company.

As he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015, “As to why I invested in the Anchor? I didn’t really think of it as an investment; I thought of it as a lark. If some guy says ‘I got a Model T that doesn’t run very well, but I’ll sell it to you for fifty bucks,’ how could you lose? Gradually I got deeper and deeper into my pride of Anchor, which forced me to stay in. I didn’t want to fail.”

He might well have failed had he not changed the recipe to an all-grain formulation when he bought the brewery outright four years later. No thanks to a severe lack of brewery funds and quality control, the Steam he’d drunk in 1965 would likely have been spoiled, sour and possibly fermented with baker’s, rather than brewer’s, yeast.

Maytag trademarked the term “steam beer” in 1981. Now we’re legally bound to call other versions – not that more than a few at best exist – “California common.” The only thing anyone remembers about the long defunct California Steam brewery is that Maytag sued its owners for trademark infringement and it closed not long after opening in the late ‘70s as one of the nation’s earliest craft breweries. For the record, I hold a slight grudge against Maytag for trademarking an historic style that neither he nor his brewery invented. I suppose he feels entitled because he saved the style.

Steam beer/California common comprises one of just four broad beer styles native to the United States. Of the others, cream ale has gotten popular; I’d never heard of Pennsylvania sSwankey until researching this article; and I’ll bet my stash of vintage Anchor Christmas Ales that that Kentucky common, an amber corn-and-rye-forward ale, will be an official Brewers Association category within a few years.

Admittedly, I don’t have any great personal stories about Anchor, outside of spending the mid-1990s as a post-college Manhattanite feeling quite proud of myself for enjoying Anchor, Amstel, Bass, Sam Smith, Newcastle and the rare Magic Hat #9 instead of the usual macro swill.

I hate that when I moved to San Francisco for a year in 1996 it never occurred to me to visit the brewery. People back then just didn’t do that. And admittedly I’d already moved on to “cooler” niche beers – namely Mendocino Red Tail Ale and Humbolt Brewing’s Red Nectar. I cringe at this and want to apologize deeply to Anchor Steam and every other worthy flagship that as far back as two decades ago I was already forsaking them despite now understanding why it’s so critically important to appreciate them.

Mercifully, these days Anchor is a huge draw for millions of visitors to San Francisco, even if it no longer sells super well around the country. When Maytag’s successors sold the brewery to Sapporo in 2017, my best friend, Herlinda Heras, who leads foreign Naval officers on tours of the Bay Area, told me she’s brought officers from around 62 different nations on tours.

As I wrote in Forbes at the time, “’They want to see the Golden Gate Bridge and they want to go to Anchor,’ she says of the brewery that originally opened in 1896. ‘It’s our history. It’s California history. I bet the guys building the Golden Gate Bridge were drinking Anchor Steam, toasting to their survival when they finished a shift.’”

No other contemporary craft brewery can claim that. But like others that are long-in-the-tooth, Anchor struggles to stay relevant, fighting to figure out how to balance the new versus the tried-and-true. When Sapporo bought the brand, Steam was selling in all 50 states and around 20 countries. But Mark Carpenter, who retired in 2017 after nearly 40 years as brewmaster, doesn’t think that’s necessarily a good thing. A few months before the sale he told me he thought the brewery should consider retrenching in San Francisco instead of spreading itself too thin with a wide and costly distribution network.

“When Fritz started the brewery there was no customer base. He had to start selling far afield to make a living,” he said. “What do today’s craft beer drinkers want? Local and small. We’re neither local nor small.”

Tara Nurin.

When Maytag bought the brewery, there were no modern craft brewers, either. However, in 1976, Jack McAuliffe, co-founder of New Albion Brewing, the first ground-up Post-Prohibition craft brewery, became the first in a long line of early brewery prospectors – successful and otherwise – to visit Anchor to mine Maytag’s brain before striking out on their own. Maytag doesn’t like being called the godfather of craft brewing but he can’t deny it’s true. Without him, today’s American beer scene might be but a pale version of itself.

That said, a brewery cannot live on sentimentality alone. Though the quality of Steam and the other offerings are as good as ever (well, since Maytag tweaked the recipe anyway), at its core it’s a basic beer. Straightforward, not hoppy or sour, not barrel aged, not complex. In short, not sexy.

But you know what? Ketchup’s not sexy either. Neither is Tylenol nor toothpaste. But we value them nonetheless. And so it is – or should be – with flagship beers, with Anchor Steam, a beer without which no craft beer as we know it would exist.  

As Keith Greggor, who bought Anchor from Maytag then sold it Sapporo, says, “You can drink an entire history of craft beer in our taproom. Before the terms ‘craft brewing’ and ‘micro-brewing’ had even been coined, Anchor had already brewed the first modern American porter, IPA, barley wine, and wheat beer. It all started with Anchor Steam. The foundation of the brewery is built on Anchor Steam; it represents the past, present and future of craft beer.”

Tara Nurin is the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes, the drinks columnist for New Jersey Monthly, a co-host of the What’s on Tap radio show, and a writer for publications like Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Vice MUNCHIES and VinePair. The BJCP-certified judge teaches for-credit university beer classes and leads beer seminars for institutions like the Smithsonian. The Camden, NJ, homeowner has won two first place awards from the North American Guild of Beer Writers, founded the state’s original beer education group for women and volunteers as the archivist for the Pink Boots Society.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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