San Franciscans mourn closure of 127-year-old pioneering Anchor Brewing Co.
Jul 12, 2023, 8:32 AM | Updated: Jul 13, 2023, 5:34 pm
(Craig Lee/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Beer lovers flocked to Anchor Brewing Co.’s tap room on Thursday to mourn the loss of the iconic San Francisco business — and buy some of its last beers — a day after learning it planned to shut down for good.
“I’m a native San Franciscan and I’ve been drinking the beer as long as I can remember,” said Suzanne Greva, who visited the business Thursday. “It’s one of my favorites and its like losing an old friend.”
The 127-year-old brewing company, known as a trailblazer of craft beers, said Wednesday it would close after years of declining sales and tough economic conditions. The tap room, which closed on the day of the announcement, reopened Thursday to patrons lined up down the street to purchase T-shirts and cases of beer. Anchor Public Taps will remain open to sell what inventory remains, including a small batch of the popular 2023 Anchor Christmas Ale.
Anchor was a trailblazer in the U.S., brewing craft beers in the 1970s when most Americans were loyal to a handful of major brands. Its unique brewing techniques ignited demand beyond the city borders of San Francisco, and it quickly became a sought-after prize by beer geeks everywhere.
“We definitely had to come down, get our hands on whatever Anchor we could bring back home and, you know, come see the brewery and enjoy a steam beer one last time here in San Francisco,” said Alex Watson, of Sacramento.
In recent years, however, brewers have faced increasing difficulty turning a profit with a proliferation of canned cocktails, crafted drinks, spirits and wines dinging beer sales. Lockdowns during the pandemic pressured brewers further.
Last year, overall beer sales volume slid 3.1% in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association. Craft brewer sales volume ticked 0.1% higher during the period, but imports are rising.
“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,” brewery spokesperson Sam Singer said in a written statement Wednesday.
Anchor Brewing had teetered near insolvency before and in the 1960s it was acquired by a Stanford University grad, Fritz Maytag. Maytag implemented new brewing practices such as dry hopping, and began bottling the beer in 1971, according to the brewer.
By the mid-1970s, Anchor Brewing had assembled a solid portfolio of respected brews — including Anchor Porter, Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine Ale and its first annual Christmas Ale, which became a holiday tradition in locales far from San Francisco.
Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible, said in a blog post Wednesday that Maytag “sparked a revival in small-scale brewing” that would transform the industry and give the emerging craft brewing industry its ethos and attitude.
“He had this approach to beer, which was, ‘We’re going to use traditional ingredients and we’re going to use traditional methods and we’re going to be defiant as we do it and we’re going to be hyper-local,’” Alworth said. “It served as a blueprint.”
Anchor Brewing was sold to the Japanese brewer Sapporo in 2017 and it’s decided to discontinue the brand.
Anchor said that it made repeated efforts over the past year to find buyers for the brewery and its brands, but that it was unable to find one. It is still possible that a buyer will come forward as part of the liquidation process, the company said.
The news of the brewery closing came as a shock to San Francisco native Frances Baxter, who said Anchor Steam beer is classic San Francisco just like sourdough bread.
“It’s just really sad because it’s over 100 years of history and it’s something so uniquely San Francisco,” Baxter said. “We lost so many sourdough bakeries … it’s a shame to lose this, too, because I’m not sure anyone is going to save it now.”
Anchor recently announced that it would limit sales of its beers to California and that it would cut production of its Anchor Christmas Ale in an effort to cut costs.
The company has stopped brewing and will continue packaging and distributing the beer on hand while available through around the end of the month.
The brewer is giving employees a 60-day notice and plans to provide transition support and separation packages.
“Anchor has invested great passion and significant resources into the company,” Singer said. “Unfortunately, today’s economic pressures have made the business no longer sustainable, and we had to make the heartbreaking decision to cease operations.”
AP reporter Olga Rodriguez, Jeff Chiu and Haven Daley contributed from San Francisco.