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America’s First Craft Brewery is in San Francisco

Updated: Aug 08, 2022 15:03
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On the roof with the fog and steam at Anchor Brewing, San Francisco CA.  Photography by @hewittvisuals

If you’re wondering where America’s first craft brewery is, look no further than San Francisco, CA. Not only is Anchor Brewing Co. widely credited with starting the craft beer revolution in the 1960s, they are also the brewers of America’s oldest, indigenous beer style; Steam Beer®. 

While there are plenty of other uniquely American styles of beers today, San Francisco’s Steam Beer® is the only one that has been brewed uninterrupted for at least 150 years (except for the Prohibition-related disruption from 1920 to 1933 that shut all breweries down nationwide). Anchor’s roots began during the California Gold Rush, when men in the tens of thousands flocked to the San Francisco Bay to make their fortunes…and they were thirsty.

In honor of San Francisco’s upcoming annual Steam Week August 14-21, we visited the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, hung out with the brewers, learned their history, and of course, drank their historic beers!

Book an Anchor Brewery tour & beer flight tasting here

1871: Gottlieb Brekle bought an old beer-and-billiards saloon on Pacific Street near Russian Hill for $3,500, transforming it into the American brewery that, twenty-five years later, would be renamed Anchor.

The History of Steam Beer

During the California Gold Rush German immigrants brought with them the Bavarian tradition of beer making known all over Europe as Lager. This light, cold, fermented beer with bottom-fermenting yeasts was aged in deep, naturally chilly German caves or in cellars full of ice. San Francisco didn’t have icy caves or mechanical refrigeration at the time, what they had in abundance was fog.

Anchor Brewmaster, Tom Riley at Anchor Brewing, San Francisco CA.  Photography by @hewittvisuals

“Steam Beer” was born in the gold rush days in SF. The “Steam” part of the name could have come about because of the method used to cool the wort after boiling. Shallow rooftop vessels (cool ships) were used, so steam would rise into the cool SF night, dubbing the beer, Steam Beer.
–  Anchor Brewmaster, Tom Riley.

San Franciscan brewers cooled their beer in the open air, and as the heat from the boil mixed with the fog and chilled Pacific air, plumes of steam would rise off rooftops and around the San Francisco Bay, and Steam Beer was born.  It was the beer of the time.

In Frank Norris’s famous 1899 novel McTeague: “A Story of San Francisco”, he mentions drinking ‘Steam Beer’ on Polk Street no less than two times in the first two paragraphs. Historical accounts throughout the late 1800s also mention SF’s Steam Beer, from stories of roving gangs on Irish Hill sharing “steam beers” after bare-knuckle fights with their rivals at Mike Boyle’s Steam Beer Dump, to reports from SF’s Barbary Coast, where after buying a nickel’s worth of steam beer “one also got a generous free lunch of spaghetti, Italian bread, and fried fish”.

Fritz Maytag, known as “The Godfather of Craft Beer”.

The History of American Craft Beer

In San Francisco in the 1960s & 70s, experimentation and outside thinking were the new norms, and Anchor’s new owner Fritz Maytag, was not afraid of taking risks.

“In the late 60s when Fritz Maytag took over the brewery, craft beer wasn’t a term.” Recounts Anchor Brewmaster Tom Riley, “Big industrial beer ruled the day (Miller/Budweiser). What Fritz was making was very unique, very small in scale and very artisanal. It’s not until a trend grows that people take notice of who started it. As the trend got bigger the term “craft beer” was coined, Fritz got credit for starting it. I’ve heard Fritz referred to as ‘The godfather of craft beer’.”

So how did Anchor start the craft beer revolution in the US? Pedro Mancilla, who leads the Anchor Brewery tour program, has an encyclopedic knowledge of brewing history. He recounted the beer and date that Anchor began the revolution, “Anchor produced the first Post-Prohibition Porter in 1972,” Mancilla said, “When the norm was to drink pale light lagers here in the states, Anchor Brewing introduced to the American palettes a new beer style.”

“We are celebrating its 50th birthday this year and it’s the beer that started the American craft beer scene. What I like to call it is “History in a glass”
– Pedro Mancilla

Anchor Steam Beer. Photography by @hewittvisuals

So what does Steam Beer taste like?  Brewmaster Riley says, “Anchor Steam is a robust yet balanced beer. It starts with the aroma of fresh bread, herbal hops and yeast esters.  Taste of caramel malt and bready notes, with the balance of bitter herbaceous hops. The look is crystal clear copper or amber color, with a creamy beige head.”

Beer delivery men in San Francisco. The first brewery workers union was formed in San Francisco in 1888. The beer delivery men were reportedly among the more militant. Photo

Union-Made Beer

San Francisco has a long historic past when it comes to Organized Labor. The first San Francisco brewery workers union was formed way back in 1888, and today, Anchor Steam workers are proud members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) which was originally established in 1937. This was three years after the 1934 Waterfront Strike, where two workers lost their lives in clashes with police and union breakers, in order to finally secure their right to organize and improve working conditions for the common man.

Pedro Mancilla, Visitation Lead at Anchor Brewing Company. Born and Bred in the Bay Area. 

ILWU member and Anchor employee Pedro Mancilla told us, “Historically, we wanted to be a part of the ILWU and felt it matched our values as one of the last working-class factories still in San Francisco. Plus, how cool is it that the first ILWU beer is Anchor Steam? That just sounds right.”

The bottling line at Anchor Brewing. Photography by @hewittvisuals

Steam Week

In 2015 the city of San Francisco proclaimed the third week of August to be Anchor Steam Week, celebrating Anchor’s pioneering role in the American craft beer movement and continued commitment to brewing in San Francisco.

To celebrate, the 7th annual Anchor Steam Week is at Anchor Public Taps and there will be:

• An afternoon of special Anchor Steam beer flights
• The legendary Sam’s Chowder Mobile will be on site serving fresh Anchor Steam Beer Battered Fish Tacos for $4.15
• A DJ spinning vinyl
• Prizes & games
• A create your own Custom Anchor x Culk bandana station, based on SF graphic designs by artist Sam Culkins.
• Plus WAY more

When:  Sunday, August 14th, 2022  12:30pm-4:30pm
Where: Anchor Public Taps, 495 DeHaro St, San Francisco

Steam Week Event Page here
For Everything Anchor Steam go here
For Anchor Brewery tours here!

Our article and tour were sponsored by Anchor Brewing, historical photos were provided by Anchor Brewing, and tour photography was taken by @hewittvisuals.  Stuart’s ‘Steam beer’ t-shirt in the photos was made by SF-based designer @culk, specially for Steam Week.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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