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End Of An Era: San Francisco Icon Anchor Brewing Closes

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Anchor Brewing Company has been a West Coast staple for 127 years. It’s the oldest craft brewery in the U.S., opening in 1898. It has survived several disasters — earthquakes, fires, ownership deaths, and Prohibition — but there was one it could not. On July 12, Anchor Brewing announced the company would be shutting down after 127 years. 

“We recognize the importance and historic significance of Anchor to San Francisco and to the craft brewing industry, but the impacts of the pandemic, inflation, especially in San Francisco, and a highly competitive market left the company with no option but to make this sad decision to cease operations,” spokesperson Sam Singer said in a press release. 

The Early Days

Anchor has one of the wildest origin stories. In 1849, pioneer brewer Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco. The German brewer purchased an old beer-and-billiards saloon on Russian Hill in 1871 that became Anchor’s first home. 

In 1896, another German brewer, Ernst F. Baruth, and his son-in-law, Otto Schnickel Jr., bought the brewery. They renamed it Anchor. There’s no official reason they picked this name, but it’s believed to be a homage to the Port of San Francisco.

Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing Company

Surviving Disaster And Prohibition

It was not an easy beginning for Anchor. In 1906, a massive earthquake struck San Francisco. The resulting fires burned down Anchor’s Russian Hill location. In February of the same year, Baruth died suddenly. In 1907, after Anchor opened its new location near Market Street, Schnickel Jr. was struck by a streetcar and passed away. Luckily, brewers Joseph Kraus and August Meyer and liquor store owner Henry Tietjen stepped in to save the business. 

In 1920, Anchor hit another bump in the road when Prohibition shut it down. There aren’t any official records of what happened at the brewery during this period, but speculation is some bootlegging went on. 

However, when Prohibition ended in 1933, Kraus got back to brewing. It was here he invented Anchor Steam Beer, one of its flagship brews. It’s believed the cold San Francisco air naturally cooled the fermenting beer outside; steam came off the batch. 

Hard Times Strike Again

Unfortunately, in February 1944, Anchor went up in flames again, meaning Kraus had to start over — again. A new location was opened with the help of Joe Allen, a new partner. The business was decent through the 1950s, but by 1959, the market had changed. The rise of mega-breweries changed people’s tastes. Sales suffered, and Kraus died in 1952, so Allen ceased operations in 1959.

By 1960, Anchor was back. Businessman Lawarence Steese purchased the brewery from Allen. Steese wanted to continue the traditional craft brewing process.

However, by 1965, even Steese was ready to shut down operations. Getting bars and restaurants to serve Anchor’s products was challenging, and the company couldn’t compete with the conglomerates.

Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing Company

New Owner Brings Innovation

Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III came to the rescue in 1965, buying a controlling stake in Anchor. He fully purchased the brewery in 1969, determined to keep it alive. By 1971, Anchor Steam Beer was back in production. Around this time, Anchor’s iconic Christmas ale made its debut. By 1975, Anchor started producing its Anchor Porter, Liberty Ale, and Old Foghorn Barleywine Ale. In 1979, it moved again to the current Potrero Hill location.

Maytag, an heir of the famous Maytag family, used his wealth to save Anchor in 1965. He learned to brew himself, investing heavily in new equipment to expand the company’s reach. Maytag is credited with bottling Anchor’s beer to ship out across California and beyond.

Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing Company

With the business back on track, Anchor began experimenting with spirits. In 1993, it became the first brewery to have its own micro-distillery. They made various single-malt rye whiskeys and gins that pay homage to San Francisco’s history. 

In 2010, Maytag retired and sold Anchor to former Skyy Vodka executives Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio. They introduced two new beers in 2013 and 2014: Anchor California Lager and Anchor IPA.

Workers Organize

Things began to change in 2017 when Japanese beer giant Sapporo purchased Anchor. The company said it would keep the San Francisco institution in the city and improve working conditions. 

However, by 2018, employees began voicing discontent with the working environment and pay. In 2019, the Anchor employees unionized, becoming one of the first craft breweries to do so. In a petition, workers cited how wages did not meet the income levels to live in San Francisco. In 2020, employees received increased wages, health insurance, and other benefits.

Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing Company

COVID-19 Pandemic Woes

Anchor survived fires, earthquakes, ownership changes, and labor relations issues. However, it couldn’t survive COVID-19. The pandemic forced the brewery to shut its doors to patrons for more than two years. It took a huge toll on Anchor financially. It came to a head in 2023 when ownership simply couldn’t meet demands amid pandemic closures. 

COVID-19 accelerated the brewery’s demise. Anchor may have suffered pandemic-related financial issues, but it constantly faced problems. Larger microbreweries were able to keep money flowing thanks to national distribution. Others had come under the control of beer conglomerates with more financial security. 

Sapporo inherited Anchor with its legacy of issues. Anchor was forced to sell regionally as the popularity of its beer dwindled. Other unpopular decisions were made, such as a logo rebranding being heavily criticized. The Christmas ale was discontinued, which also was not received well. 

The news has shattered many hearts of San Francisco residents, many who loved Christmas ale. A group of employees has considered purchasing Anchor to keep it afloat, but nothing has been finalized at the time of writing. 

Anchor Brewing endured 127 years of highs and lows. While seeing it go is crushing to many craft beer fans and brewery staff, the good times from enjoying its beers will be anchored in the memories of those who experienced the West Coast icon. 

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