An SF Legend Is Dead: Anchor Steam Has Brewed Its Last Beer

If you see a 6-pack on the shelf, pick it up

July 14, 2023 7:11 am
Boxing up the bottles beer at Anchor Steam Beer Brewery, March 28, 1978.
Boxing up the bottles beer at Anchor Steam Beer Brewery, March 28, 1978.
Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

After 127 years, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., the country’s first craft brewery, has ceased operations.

“This was an extremely difficult decision that Anchor reached only after many months of careful evaluation,” Anchor spokesperson Sam Singer said in a statement. “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.”

The brewery will be liquidating the business. Anchor was founded in 1896; it nearly closed in 1965 before a last-minute acquisition. It was sold to Sapporo in 2017. Last month, Sapporo announced Anchor Steam would only be available in California, ceasing national distribution. 

“I’m knocked for a loop a little bit with this Anchor news,” Herlinda Heras, international beer judge and co-host of Brew HaHa Craft Beer Radio on KSRO Sonoma County told us. “Sapporo was really excited about having Anchor in their stable. Mark Carpenter [head brewer at Anchor for 45 years] and I were just talking about this and saw some conspiracy posts that Sapporo bought Anchor because it was competition, but Anchor was never their competition. They bought it because of its history. We do agree that they should have given it at least a year to see how this [selling only in California] would work.”

Anchor Brewing’s Closure Is a Hit to Craft Beer’s History and Future
The iconic brewery that helped define American craft beer is being sold for scraps

While it’s true the beer industry has gone down 3 percent in the last year, craft beer has never been more popular. 2021 to 2022 saw a 17 percent increase in regional craft breweries.

“Anchor’s closure is one of those things that sort of means everything and nothing,” journalist Dave Infante of VinePair told us. “Everything because it’s a singular institution in the American brewing landscape, credited with kicking off the craft brewing movement under Fritz Maytag’s stewardship in the back half of the twentieth century. And nothing because it’s just so singular: a small brewery in a big American city, passed down through 12 owners over 125-plus years, constantly saving itself or being saved from ruin, known for its own genre-defining steam beer — [it’s] hard to draw any universally applicable lessons from that, man.”

“Like all cultural treasures, Anchor’s value to people was never fully represented by the price it charged for its beers,” Infante said. “I think it’s a fucking shame that we haven’t figured out a better mechanism to decide what’s worth keeping other than the P&L. Sapporo held itself out as a more patient, more disciplined ‘strategic partner’ than Anheuser-Busch, InBev, et al,, but this move really gives the lie to that fiction for anyone still convinced there are ‘good’ corporations out there. A few down years — three of the six of which were during the pandemic! — at this tiny, low-volume asset is a speed bump for a company Sapporo’s size. That they’re cutting bait now demonstrates they are no different than any of their competitors, and drinkers and independent brewery workers and owners alike should take note.”

This week’s closing may not come as a shock to anyone paying attention to the beer community. Last month Anchor announced it was halting national distribution and discontinuing normal retail sales of its Christmas Ale, which it’s produced since 1975. That’s clearly no longer the plan. If you see a six-pack on the shelf, pick it up now. Anchor Public Taps — which actually is serving the 2023 Christmas Ale, a small taste of what might have been — will operate through the end of the month.

The current iteration of Anchor Steam may be over, but the beer will most likely live on. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub wrote: “The beauty of Anchor is it tastes like SF. More specifically, it tastes like a cold foggy day, with notes of a sourdough factory and a hint of the metallic rail of a cable car.” That taste will continue via home brewers (Brew Your Own offers six clone recipes) until another brewer purchases the name and recipes. The only guarantee is that the new owner of the Anchor Steam name will not be Sapporo.


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