A Conversation About Anchor Steam
A Conversation About Anchor Steam Beer
This year there are a lot of anniversaries you can celebrate if you love craft beer, and especially if you love Anchor beer. First of all, it was 125 years ago when the Anchor Brewing Company was founded, and the 125th anniversary of when Anchor Steam Beer was first brewed. Then there’s the 150th anniversary of when Gottlieb Brekle, on September 18, 1871, bought a San Francisco beer and billiards saloon and renamed it the Golden City Brewery. Twenty-five years later it had another new owner and became Anchor Brewing.
Fast forward to 1965, and recent Stanford graduate, Fritz Maytag, was having dinner at his favorite restaurant, the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, where his usual was an Anchor Steam Beer. Owner Fred Kuh, who knew of Maytag’s affection for the beer, casually asked him if he’d ever been to the brewery. “No,” was Fritz’s reply and Kuh slyly remarked that he should go see it while he still could, because it would probably be closing in a day or two.
The next day, August 2, 1965, Fritz Maytag walked into the Anchor brewery and spoke to owner Lawrence Steese. When he left, he owned 51% of the business, having written a check for a few thousand dollars to secure a controlling interest. And that’s when things started to get really interesting….
To get the real backstory of Anchor Steam Beer, I sat down (virtually) with the past, present and future of Anchor: their former brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who started with the brewery in 1971 and only recently retired after 45 years; current brewmaster Tom Riley, who started with the brewery in 1983; and Anchor historian Dave Burkhart, who has just turned in the manuscript for his forthcoming book, The Anchor Brewing Story.
The first thing Maytag did when he took over the brewery, after paying off its debts and trying to learn everything he could about brewing as quickly as possible, was to stabilize the beer. As Anchor’s fortunes were falling, its previous owner had cut corners on the beer when he had to, using corn syrup or buying cheaper hops. That had led to the beer being somewhat uneven in quality, so Maytag returned to using all barley malt and consistently using the same hop variety, Northern Brewer. He also brought in his microscope from home and read Pasteur’s Studies on Fermentation.
Initially, they were selling around one hundred kegs of beer each week, which managed to keep them afloat, but only barely. If the Old Spaghetti Factory didn’t order ten per week, it might have been a different story. In 1969, he bought the remaining 49% of the brewery, and by 1971, he had figured out how to make the beer consistently good but needed to turn around their fortunes. So Maytag decided that it was time to start bottling Anchor Steam for the first time in the modern era, which up until that point — at least after Prohibition — had been draft only. Which is yet another anniversary this year, a 50th for that bottling, which took place on April 23, 1971 when 200 cases were bottled.
Speaking of 50th anniversaries, just a few months later, longtime brewmaster Mark Carpenter was hired, beginning work on September 30, 1971. His understanding of the history of Steam Beer is that it was made by a number of breweries in San Francisco and throughout parts of the West Coast out of necessity, since with ice and other methods of refrigeration unavailable, brewers found a lager yeast strain that would ferment at warmer temperatures and could easily, and perhaps more importantly, cheaply make steam beer.
The style proliferated until Prohibition, when it all but died out. By the time of repeal, refrigeration was available and affordable so most brewers saw no need to continue making steam beer, especially when popular tastes had shifted towards pilsners and other lager beer. But as Carpenter remembers, “When Fritz bought the brewery, he really bought an 18th century brewery. There was no refrigeration anywhere in the building, only one pump that pumped the hot wort up to the coolship; that was it. Everything else was done by gravity. Fritz really modernized it. We never had refrigeration in our fermenting rooms at the old brewery. We just took advantage of San Francisco’s cool weather.” So for the time being, at least, it just made sense to continue brewing Steam Beer.
But it was bottling it that made the difference. As Mark explains, at the time “the average bar had 2, 3, or at most, 4 tap handles; usually Bud, Miller, Coors and a light beer.
“I’ll bet that close to 80 or 90% of beer was sold in bottles and cans. People weren’t going out as much. There was no variety. I remember telling one of our distributors that bars would be putting in a lot more tap handles, and he laughed — told me I was crazy. So with that situation, [we] had to have bottles to be successful.”
It’s hard to remember, or even fathom, now, but Steam Beer at that time was quite hoppy compared to the majority of largely interchangeable lagers. It was very distinctive and a category unto itself because nobody else was making it. And that made for some unique stories! I asked Mark if he remembered the first time he had an Anchor Steam Beer.
“The first time I had Steam Beer was in 1963. I had just met a girl I liked at a friend’s house and I asked her if she wanted to go out for a beer. She said ‘Yes,’ and so we went to Leroy’s Hooch House in Napa, owned by a guy who worked at the Mare Island Shipyard. He opened at 6:00 am for the guys getting off the night shift, and had Steam on draft. I’d seen signs for Steam Beer growing up in Sausalito, but I’d never tried it and I didn’t know anything about it.
“So we’re sitting in this bar and the girl asked, ‘Well, what’s this Steam Beer?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, we had better try it.’ So we called Leroy over and he said, ‘Never had it, huh. Well, we got two: we got the light and the dark. If you’ve never had it before you better start with the light.’ So we did. It would have been real popular today, because it was hazy as hell. You couldn’t see through it at all. We drank it, and I remember it tasting kind of fruity (they probably had some bacteria in there) and if anything it tasted kind of like an English mild to me. Years later, when I started working at Anchor, I discovered that the dark beer was just regular Steam with caramel coloring added in the keg – somebody before Fritz thought of the idea, and it was popular in some accounts. That’s in part why Fritz started making Porter, because he wanted to make a real dark beer, not a fake one.”
That uniqueness was still true twenty years later when the current brewmaster, Tom Riley, had his first Anchor Steam. He grew up in San Francisco, just off of Potrero Hill, and “remembers the smells of the neighborhood. There was a coffee roastery nearby, and the smell of the brewery when the wind blew a certain way, plus the sound of the foghorn. Those are the things that were ingrained in me growing up there. I had my first Steam Beer shortly before I started working there and I just thought it was an interesting beer that didn’t taste like anything else. My friends were drinking Budweiser and Miller, and with Steam you could only have a couple as far as we were concerned. It was so different.
What has not changed in those fifty years, or 125 years, is how the beer is made. The same basic recipe they use today is astonishingly similar to how it used to be made. As Riley can attest, “nothing has changed now. Any area that we can improve it – not change it! – if that means better shelf stabilization so it gets to the customer as intended, great. But the raw ingredients or the basic process, no.”
Mark remembers visiting a brewpub with Fritz Maytag in Cincinnati, or possibly across the river in Kentucky, where a man had loaned his extensive breweriana collection to the brewpub and it was displayed as a beer museum. Among the items there was an old recipe book from the 1940s that had belonged to a former Anchor brewer. This was in the days before everybody carried a camera in their phone, but they were able to take a good look at the steam beer recipe, and confirm it was “basically the same recipe” they still make.
And that’s just one more thing that makes Anchor Steam Beer special. As brewmaster Tom Riley put it when I asked what he’d want someone to know about the beer if they’d never heard of it:
"It’s history in a bottle."
“If you’re starting from ground zero, we want people to know the history and the story. It’s a big part of the reason it’s so important to keep the beer the same, so you have that story in a bottle. There’s a real connection there. It’s my responsibility now to keep the beer the same. You can have history in a bottle, and you can have it anywhere. You can have San Francisco sourdough and San Francisco beer in New York City and you can really make a connection with that experience and make it real.”
As we’re winding down our conversation, which is making me thirstier by the minute, Mark sums it all up. “Steam quite honestly is one the world’s great beers. I really believe that. If I’ve been out of town and I come home and I have a Steam beer, and man, it just tastes so good. I just think it’s a great beer.”
It’s hard to argue with that. But I think it’s best to open up another bottle of Steam Beer just to be sure.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.