The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer: From Cheap Suds to Well-Heeled Duds

Breweries are creatures that need a lot of space.

You can find San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. down where the streets begin to give up their sidewalks. If you make the trek by foot, as I did, you are reminded that breweries are most definitely objects that occur in the more industrial parts of town. Anchor Brewing is only a few blocks away from San Francisco’s Berry Street Gravel Co. for instance.

This isn’t to say that the neighborhood surrounding the Mariposa Street brewery doesn’t have its share of gourmet restaurants and gyms these days but that in walking my way from Union Square to Anchor Brewing, I was reminded of my wanderings around Brooklyn searching for lost breweries.

Anchor is best known for its Steam Beer. Founded in 1896, the brewery was originally known as the Steam Beer Brewing Co. Steam Beer is a distinctly West Coast beer style. Historically the beer was produced with lager yeast and fermented without refrigeration. It’s a cheap beer, basically.

Steam Beer is also known as California Common Beer. The Anchor Brewing Co. copyrighted the name “Anchor Steam Beer” in the eighties. But the similarities between Anchor Steam and its ancestors are in name only. Anchor Brewing was one of the first U.S. breweries to lead the microbrewing renaissance of the seventies. We’ll get to that.

Steam Beer Brewing was purchased in 1959 by Lawrence Steese and Bill Buck, a duo whose enthusiasm for beer was not matched by their proficiency at brewing it. The only champion of the beer was Fred Kuh who was the owner of the Old Spaghetti Factory, which was a café that served Anchor’s beer.

The beer produced by Steese and Buck could be politely described as foul and inconsistent. By 1965 the two were about to throw in their brewing aprons and call it a day. Kuh wasn’t prepared to let the brewery go. By the fifties and sixties, Anchor was one of the very few “little breweries” still in operation in the U.S. and he wanted to see this tradition preserved.

Enter Fritz Maytag.

Maytag is the great-grandson of Fredrick Louis Maytag who founded the Maytag Corporation. Wanting a challenge that would match his ambition, Fritz Maytag was attracted to the brewery. At Kuh’s urging, he purchased a fifty-one percent stake of it in 1965. What he now had was a dilapidated brewery known by locals for producing a sour and undrinkable concoction.

His intentions were to make the best beer in the world. Noticing that many of his friends bought expensive imports when out at bars, Maytag realized that he needed to aim his product at people who were willing to spend a little more for something a little better than a Budweiser.

After finding himself unsuccessful at peddling Anchor beer as it was, Maytag also realized that for the brewery to succeed it would need to brew beer using only the highest-quality ingredients. San Francisco was also an important component to the beer and by naming his particular brew something that heralded back to the city’s brewing traditions, Maytag could look forward as well as back. It’s a move that you see again and again in the microbrewery world where some form of a pre-Prohibition recipe or style is updated with high-quality ingredients. It could be argued that Anchor was the first U.S. brewery to figure this one out.

The end result was Anchor Steam Beer – steam beer for the well-heeled.

Maytag has often been dismissed as a rich kid who used his personal resources to keep a brewery afloat that would have otherwise completely failed. It’s not something that Maytag has ever denied. But as Maureen Ogle notes in Ambitious Brew, “a focus on Maytag’s name and inheritance obscures the brewer’s prescience. The signs were everywhere for those who took the time to look.”

And they certainly did. Without Maytag’s persistence and vision, not only would a beer tradition have been lost, but the microbrewing industry would have lost an early champion.

Most importantly – Anchor Steam is a pretty great beer.

Filed under: beer history, breweries, , , , , , , , , ,

Without Victory There Is No Survival

Pilsners, to me, are a distinctly summery beer, which is why I was happy to have a Victory Prima Pils on a recent September afternoon.

The Prima Pils from Downington, Pa.’s Victory Brewing Co. is brewed in the classic German style. Pilsners are a lager beer – historically stored in caves as a form of cold conditioning – that have a straw-like color and a nice but mild bite of hops with a refreshing finish.

Victory’s pilsner is all that and a little more. This pilsner has a 5.3 percent ABV and is double hopped to give it a sharper bite than most pilsners. The Prima Pils a strong-bodied pilsner that is full of flavor that fully embraces the pilsner style.

Pilsners often get a bad rap from craft-brew aficionados due, in part, to the proliferation of American-style pilsners such as Budweiser, Miller, and the like.

It was in the 1870s that pale lagers like Budweiser began to take hold in America, shifting tastes away from the heavy amber Bavarian beers. These new pilsners were made with corn or rice and were, at the time, more expensive to make than the all-malt beers – and these beers satisfied American beer drinkers more than any other beer. (The process for making them grew cheaper as time passed; at the time of their inception, though, it’s important to note that a Budweiser was actually an expensive beer to produce.)

These pilsners formed the backbone of the industrialization of the brewing industry. And as Maureen Ogle notes in her book Ambitious Brew, many local beers of the nineteenth century were made of poor quality and had an inconsistent, sour, or nonexistent flavor. It was Budweiser and its competitors who produced consistent-tasting beers at a high enough volume to break into markets throughout the U.S.

These sweeter-tasting beers came to dominate the market and thereby defined what a beer was to many beer drinkers.

But German pilsners always remained the same – Pilsner Urquell, Jever, and Spaten to name a few – retained that crisp bitter flavor without the sweetness. They’re mass produced in Germany and imported to U.S., sure, but the style is distinct from a Budweiser, which is a sweet, watery beer that doesn’t offend.

I always find it bold of craft brewers to take a shot at a pilsner. The style might not excite many hop enthusiasts. In my mind at least, the first thing I think of when I think about a craft beer is an amber-colored brew with a strong hoppy flavor and a rich, malty taste. While a golden pilsner seems like the antithesis of craft brewing. But it’s all about the ingredients and Victory doesn’t skimp on the Prima Pils.

And so with that said, when a craft pilsner works out – it’s a victory.

Filed under: beer history, beer reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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