In the early ’90s, I worked in a trendy London pub that served beers from around the world. One of those brews, served in bottles, was Anchor Steam. I had never heard of this so-called San Francisco beer and had my doubts that it actually had distribution in the United States. I was wrong, of course. Under various names, Anchor Brewing Co. had been around for more than 100 years by the time I “discovered” it.
America’s beer landscape was just beginning to shift in those days, from a country with only a few hundred breweries to one with an exploding microbrewery scene. (The revolution was sparked by Fritz Maytag, who rescued Anchor from bankruptcy in 1965 and revived America’s craft brewing industry.) By 1996 there were more than 1,000 breweries in the United States. Today there are nearly 3,000, and the surge shows no sign of abating.
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Beer tastes have changed a lot since the ’90s, with hoppy brews taking center stage. While I enjoy the occasional IPA, I find many to be over-the-top hoppy, akin to over-oaked Chardonnay. I usually gravitate toward English or German-style beers. They’re flavorful, but also balanced, and low enough in alcohol that I can drink more than one and remain upright.
In my quest for flavorful, well-balanced beers, I recently rediscovered Anchor Steam. How had I forgotten it? With its creamy head, deep caramel color and malty flavor, it’s practically the perfect beer.
Making steam beer
Anchor’s iconic “steam beer” was introduced in 1896, but it wasn’t sold in bottles until 1971.
During a recent tour of Anchor Brewing Co., I was told that the beer was named for the steam that rose from the brewery’s rooftop as San Francisco’s night air cooled the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.
Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined the brewery the same year Anchor Steam made its debut in bottles, offered another explanation.
“Steam beer is just a funny name given to this beer that was developed on the West Coast at the time of the Gold Rush,” he said. “With the Gold Rush came a huge influx of northern Europeans and these guys wanted beer. So brewers started setting up crude little breweries. Some wanted to make lager beer, and one of the features of lager was that it was carbonated.”
This was done through a process called krausening (“KROY-zen-ing”), in which an actively fermenting beer is added to an older one to bring about a secondary fermentation. “It carbonates the beer, and it also has an influence on its flavor,” Carpenter said. When these highly carbonated beers were brought into bars where there was no refrigeration to temper the carbonation, they produced a lot of foam when they were tapped.
“Somebody said it looked like they were trying to tap a keg filled with steam,” Carpenter said, and a nickname was born.
Anchor still makes its steam beer in the traditional way, boiling wort and mashing malt in huge copper kettles.
Although the brewery’s production has increased over the decades and its offerings have expanded, Anchor hasn’t outgrown its artisanal methods. “We only use whole hop flowers,” Carpenter said. “We don’t use extracts and we don’t use pellets. Most small breweries these days do.” Another distinction, he added, is that the brewhouse is run “by people, not computers.”
Expanding and innovating
Carpenter does not expect much to change next year, when Anchor opens a second brewing facility at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The new brewhouse will nearly quadruple Anchor’s annual production capacity from 180,000 barrels to 680,000.
“Wherever it’s better for the beer for us to go high tech, we do,” he said. “For instance, our fermenters now are stainless steel, but originally those would have been pitch-lined redwood — just a nightmare to keep clean. So when it’s better for the beer, we do go modern. Otherwise, we try to stick with simple and traditional.”
Even so, Anchor is not stuck in the past. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010 and sold the business, the new owners asked Carpenter to start developing new beers for the line.
“When I started with Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam Beer,” Carpenter said. “Then we developed our Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine, our Liberty Ale — and many of those were the very first of their varieties in America. I think we’re still innovating.”
One such innovation was Anchor’s Zymaster Series. “The idea was that we would do these one-off beers from time to time and just see how they were accepted,” Carpenter said. “It’s a fun thing that shows our creativity. Not every beer has to be a winner.”
The series has included brews such as Mark’s Mild, Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale, Saareemaa Pale Ale, and (coming soon) Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA.
With the wild popularity of hoppy beers today, one might be tempted to think that Anchor is jumping on the bandwagon with its Zymaster Series IPA. Not so; the brewery’s Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition. At the time, Carpenter wondered if the public could handle all those hops. “Lots of people, including us at the brewery, wondered if anybody would drink it,” he said. “That was considered a brutally hopped beer when it first came out. Now it’s mainstream.”
Although he says IPAs are here to stay, Carpenter predicts that the style will become less extreme. “I think they will be a little lower in hops and have more body,” he said. “I think those types of beers are going to be around forever.”
His favorite beer, however, is still the classic Anchor Steam, and this beer drinker is inclined to agree.
Main photo: Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.